In Adhamiya, a neighborhood that only a year ago was among the most dangerous in Baghdad, the violence last week seemed almost negligible. A shootout near a checkpoint left two people dead on Sunday. Another man was killed on Monday by a small bomb placed under a car.
Some residents hardly noticed.
But the deaths quickly drew the attention of the U.S. officers stationed in the neighborhood. Both outbursts involved members of the Awakening Councils, the citizen patrols paid by the United States to fight the insurgency.
And both were seen as a worrisome sign of the tension and infighting that have rippled through the Sunni-dominated Awakening groups in recent weeks, just as the U.S. military plans to transfer control of about half the councils to the Shiite-led government.
The U.S. military credits the councils — whose 99,000 members are mostly Sunni Muslims, many of them former insurgents — with helping to greatly reduce violence around the country.
But in Adhamiya and in some other areas of Iraq, the patrols, hailed by many as heroic for making the streets safer, have posed increasing problems. Commanders quarrel and jockey for power and territory. Finger-pointing and threats are common. Some residents complain that the men, not a few of them swaggering street toughs, use their power to intimidate people. Sometimes violence erupts.
“What you have is essentially armed factions, like mini-gangs that operate in a certain set of checkpoints in certain territories,” said Lt. Erick Kuylman, a patrol commander in the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, which operates in Adhamiya.
Kuylman said the Awakening Councils had met their original purpose, but he added, “They have outlived, I think, their service since then.”
Some U.S. officers say it is no coincidence that the problems have worsened at a critical juncture for the Awakening movement and for U.S. forces.
On Oct. 1, 54,000 Awakening members in and around the capital — including those in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold where Saddam Hussein was last seen before he vanished — will move to the payroll of an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite Muslims, who were long persecuted under Saddam.
U.S. military commanders have said the success of the transition is a critical gauge of whether reconciliation is possible at a time when withdrawals of U.S. troops are beginning.
“It’s a very big deal to us to make sure that this goes off well,” said Brig. Gen. Robin P. Swan, a deputy commander for the U.S. forces in Baghdad. “We are taking it seriously, as is the government of Iraq.”
The military has spent months working out the mechanics of the transition, hoping to head off problems. But some U.S. officers have expressed concerns that should the transition go badly, the lure of the insurgency might prove too great for some Awakening members, in particular top leaders, who stand to lose lucrative management fees and higher salaries.