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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government will not tolerate U.S.-backed neighbourhood patrols turning into a "third force" alongside the army and the police, Defence Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim said on Saturday.
His remarks came a day after one of the most powerful Shi'ite Muslim leaders in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, called for the mainly Sunni patrols to be brought under tight government control and have a broader sectarian makeup.
"Everybody should know: There will never be a third force. The only two forces are the ministries of defence and interior."
The neighbourhood patrols, made up of some 71,000 men including former insurgents who fought against the United States and Iraqi military, are credited with having helped bring down violence in some of Iraq's most volatile areas.
But the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government was lukewarm about allowing men it once regarded as enemies to be organised in armed groups. Shi'ite leaders fear the mainly Sunni men would turn against them once the U.S. forces withdrew.
The United States now pays most of the patrol members about $10 a day, but under U.S. pressure the Iraqi government has said it will take over paying for most of the programme by mid-2008.
Bolani said the government plans to integrate about 20 percent of the patrolmen into the security forces. Others would be offered vocational training for civilian jobs.
The units cooperate with the Iraqi police and army but there have been occasional incidents of clashes between the patrols and the security forces. In one clash last week, two policemen were killed and four patrolmen were wounded when they fought near the town of Baiji, 180 km north of Baghdad.
Some police officials also say they distrust the tribes which recruit the men to join the neighbourhood patrols. Both ministers, however, praised the patrols as a factor behind a sharp drop in bloodshed across Iraq.
"If there were graphs you would see that security in all Iraqi provinces especially in Baghdad is at a very low level in terms of terrorism and violence," Jassim said, adding that violence in Baghdad has dropped to its lowest level since 2004.
"We are exactly (where we were) in 2004," he said.
But he said violence was still a real threat in the provinces north of Baghdad such as Diyala, where al Qaeda has regrouped, and in Nineveh where an influx of foreign fighters from Syria, though down, remained a destabilising factor.
Bolani said: "Despite the operations of the forces of the ministries of defence and interior and the coalition, and the improvement in the (northern) regions, our next battle with the terrorists and gangs of al Qaeda will be north of Baghdad."
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