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Sun 17 Feb 2008 10:04 AM

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Anti-Qaeda troops quit

More than 100 anti-terrorist fighters resign accusing US military employers of killing 19 of their men.

More than 100 members of an anti-Qaeda front in central Iraq on Saturday handed their resignations to their US military employers, accusing them of killing 19 of their group, their leader told AFP.

The walk-out occurred in Juruf Sakher village near the city of Hilla, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Baghdad, said Sabah al-Janabi, leader of the anti-Qaeda Awakening group in the area.

"The group, which comprises 110 members, resigned in protest at organised assassinations by the coalition forces," said Janabi.

According to Janabi and a local police official, Ali Al-Lami, three members of the Awakening group were killed on Saturday when they were attacked by gunfire from a US helicopter.

"It was the third incident in a month. We have lost 19 men while 12 have been injured because of coalition attacks," said Janabi.

The US military said it was not certain that the Awakening members had indeed resigned.

"There was a peaceful demonstration in Jurf Al-Sakhar, however there was no implication that the (Awakening) would cease in their work with coalition forces," it said.

The Awakening groups began in western Anbar province where Sunni tribal leaders in September 2006 turned on their former Al-Qaeda allies and caused them to flee.

Since then they have sprung up across the country, supported and paid for by the US military which sees them as essential to help hold areas cleared by an American "surge" of some 30,000 troops.

US commanders say there are now around 130 such groups across Iraq with a total of about 80,000 volunteers, 80 percent of them Sunni and the remainder Shiite.

On Monday, about 3,500 demonstrators, mainly Awakening members, marched through the streets of Baquba north of Baghdad to demand the sacking of the police chief whom they claim was behind kidnappings in the city.

Abu Haider al-Katib, a spokesman for the 1920s Revolution Brigades, the largest of the Awakening components, told AFP that if their demands were not met, they would "take up arms" against the police "and US troops if they support the police."

The protests underscore the US military's tenuous position.

Many of the volunteer fighters are former Sunni insurgents who signed up with the Americans for 10 dollars a day and the promise of a job in the security forces.

The effort has been credited with helping reduce the number of attacks across Iraq by 62% since June, but many Shiite leaders are suspicious of the groups, believing they could transform into militias.

The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has acknowledged that there are problems with some groups and that limited infiltration by Al-Qaeda is possible. But he says the aim is to bring as many of the volunteers as possible into the Iraqi security forces where they would fall under government control.

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