BAGHDAD (AP) – A Sunni militia leader who took up arms against insurgents now faces charges linked to bloodshed before joining the U.S.-led battle – setting up another potential showdown over how to sort out the messy histories for thousands of tribal fighters who went from enemies to allies.

The question took on a sharper edge Sunday as some Sunni leaders denounced the arrests of the Sunni militia chief and his two brothers as a sign the Shiite-led government may be more interested in settling past scores than finding reconciliation.

A similar dispute in March touched off two days of deadly clashes in Baghdad that required U.S. forces to intervene.

“This arrest is a plot to undermine our strength,” said Sheik Mustafa Kamil al-Jubouri, a leader in southern Baghdad for the so-called Awakening Councils, who turned against al-Qaida and other insurgents in recent years in one of the pivotal alliances of the war.

Mohammed Khalil Ibrahim, a top deputy for the arrested Awakening Council leader, threatened to disband the group in the area they control north of Baghdad unless he was freed by early Monday.

But the accusations against the three arrested Saturday north of Baghdad – Mullah Nadhum al-Jubouri and his two brothers – are sweeping.

Al-Jubouri is suspected of links to killings of “prominent figures” around his base in Dujail, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad, said Ahmed Abdul-Karim, deputy governor of Salahuddin province.

Other Iraqi officials said the charges also include carrying out attacks in 2005 and 2006 such as the downing a U.S. helicopter and targeting a police station near Duluiyah, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release the details of the case.

A U.S. military statement did not mention specific allegations against the three but said they were wanted for “terrorism.”

The arrests, led by Iraqi forces, bring another test for Iraq’s Shiite-led government to move ahead with pledges for Sunni reconciliation and offer security posts to members of the Awakening Councils, which began to form in late 2006.

Sunni leaders have protested the slow pace of government outreach. Some Awakening Council units, meanwhile, have threatened to end patrols and leave checkpoints because promised government payments have fallen behind.

Any step back by the tribal Sunni militias could leave Baghdad and other areas more vulnerable to attacks from insurgents, who have sharply stepped up bombings in the past month.

Some Awakening Council members were active in the insurgency or sympathizers before becoming disenchanted with al-Qaida’s widespread attacks on civilians and their reliance on non-Iraqi leaders.

“We ask the government to release him,” said another of Nadum al-Jubouri’s brothers, Mahir. “He had a role in defeating al-Qaida. Does he deserve to be arrested?”

There was no immediate signs of a violent Sunni backlash to the arrests, but clashes have flared recently after similar raids.

The arrest of an Awakening Council leader in Baghdad touched off two days of fighting with U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in late March, killing at least four people. The arrested leader, Adel al-Mashhadani, was wanted under a December 2008 warrant accusing him of charges that include roadside bombings and links to al-Qaida in Iraq.

An amnesty law adopted last year allows officials to clear the slate for some past offenses, but does not cover allegations such as terrorism, kidnapping and rape.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” said Washington strongly favors efforts at political compromises between Shiites and Sunnis.

“Regardless of what he says, Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki also is reaching out to elements of the Sunni community as potential political allies,” said Gates, “so the key for us is the Iraqis themselves, working these differences out and their problems in a political way.”

In the southern city of Hillah, the U.S. Consulate came under a rocket attack, but none hit the compound and there were no casualties, the U.S. military said.

Iraqi police later found rocket launchers and nine rockets, which were defused, the statement said.

AP-ES-05-03-09 1553EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.