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Iraqi Shiite leader says armed ’awakening’ groups should not replace government forces

    BAGHDAD — The leader of the largest Shiite political party in Iraq told about 5,000 faithful who gathered Friday for Eid al-Adha prayers that U.S.-backed anti-al-Qaida armed groups — mostly comprised of Sunnis — should be on the side of government forces and not try to replace them.
    Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, told worshippers gathered near his office in southwest Baghdad that the so-called ‘‘awakening’’ groups, many of whom once fought against U.S. forces but have since turned their guns on extremists, that the fighters must side with the government.
    ‘‘I stress the necessity of having the awakening councils be on the side of the government in chasing terrorists and criminals, but not be a substitute for it,’’ al-Hakim said. ‘‘Weapons should be within the hands of the government only.’’
    He went on to say that the armed groups should be active in areas where there is still much fighting — such as volatile Diyala province — but that they should stand down in areas where Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, fearing the Sunni factions will stir up sectarian strife.
    Iraq’s Shiite-led government has been deeply suspicious of the tribal militias, fearing that they could turn against Iraqi security forces in the future. Despite U.S. calls to integrate the fighters into the mainstream army, the Iraqi government has been reluctant to do so, only approving about 6 percent of the current 60,000 volunteer militiamen around the country for jobs in the Iraqi security forces.
    Most are on the U.S. military payroll, receiving an average of $300 a month, though the Iraqi government has said it will begin paying them at an unspecified future date.
    In early December, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the chief Iraqi military spokesman, signaled that the Shiite government might be slowly warming to the awakening groups, praising them for helping reduce violence in Iraq, which officials say has dropped by nearly 60 percent in the last six months.
    Al-Hakim has been blasted by his opponents — mostly followers of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — for his November visit to President Bush in Washington and his relatively close ties with the Americans.
    He also told worshippers that the recently extended U.N. mandate for U.S.-led forces in Iraq had to be final, and that Iraq had to reach a successful bilateral pact with the U.S. to ‘‘secure Iraqis’ rights in all aspects and accomplish total sovereignty.’’
    Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a ‘‘declaration of principles’’ on Nov. 26 that set the foundation for a potential long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq and confirmed that Washington and Baghdad will work out an ‘‘enduring’’ relationship. The agreement will replace the U.N. mandate regulating the presence of the U.S. forces that has been extended on a yearly basis.
    New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met with al-Maliki on Friday during a surprise visit to Baghdad.
    Rudd, who was elected in November, has pledged to pull his country’s 550 combat troops out of Iraq by mid-2008. He said that after the troops withdraw in June, Australia will continue to help train the Iraqi police force and army.
    The new government plans to leave several hundred other Australian forces in and around Iraq in non-fighting roles.
    ‘‘I am happy that the (Australians) were a partnership in success,’’ al-Maliki said at a joint news conference with Rudd. ‘‘Also, the June deadline for withdrawal will be for part of the troops and not for the forces protecting Iraqi oil exports.’’
    Rudd also promised to help Iraqi agriculture, offering 100 scholarships for agricultural training in Australia.
    Also Friday, UNICEF said in a report that children were frequently caught in the crossfire of fighting in Iraq in the past year, and an estimated 2 million still face threats, including disease and poor nutrition.
    UNICEF said hundreds of children were killed or injured ‘‘and many more had their main family wage-earner kidnapped or killed’’ in the past year. An average of 25,000 children were displaced to other parts of Iraq each month through violence or intimidation, and that by the end of 2007 about 75,000 children were living in temporary shelters or camps, it said.
    According to UNICEF, about 1,350 children were detained by authorities in 2007, ‘‘many for alleged security violations.’’ Only 28 percent of 17 year-olds took their school leaving exams this year, it added.
    But the improving security situation — which U.S. military officials say has led to a 60 percent fall in violence — could provide an opportunity for aid agencies to provide some relief.
    ‘‘Iraqi children are paying far too high a price,’’ said Roger Wright, UNICEF’s representative for Iraq.
    While UNICEF has ‘‘been providing as much assistance as possible, a new window of opportunity is opening. We must act now,’’ Wright said.
    UNICEF said it invested more than $40 million in 2007 that helped conduct immunization campaigns, inoculating more than 3 million children against measles, mumps and rubella, and more than 4 million against polio. The agency said that as security improved, children’s needs would become clearer, and it called for more funds.
    ‘‘Meeting the needs of Iraq’s children in 2008 depends, to a great extent, on sufficient financial resources being made available,’’ UNICEF said. ‘‘Children can and should be the priority for international investment in Iraq.’’
    In violence Friday, a gunmen attacked a family in a Shiite in volatile Diyala province near Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing two men and kidnapping a third, police said. Just east of Baqouba, the capital of Diyala, two men standing in front of their house were killed by unknown armed men.
    Also Friday, a British armored personnel carrier was hit by a suspected roadside bomb, a spokesman for the British said. Capt. Finn Aldrich, a spokesman for the British military, said there were no casualties and no injuries.
    AP Television News video showed the vehicle ablaze with thick, black smoke billowing from it as British troops secured the site.

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