A powerful Iraqi Shiite leader called on Friday for Sunni groups battling against Al-Qaeda to be closely monitored, and said that such groups must operate in conjunction with the state.
"We appreciate the honorable role played by the Awakening forces" but "we emphasize that arms must be in the hands of the government only," said Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), one of the main parties in the Baghdad government.
Hakim was addressing Iraqi Shiites celebrating the feast of Eid al-Adha which marks the final day of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Dozens of Sunni Arab groups called Al-Sahwa (Awakening) have been formed -- with the support of US military -- across Iraq's volatile Sunni regions to fight Al-Qaeda militants.
Critics claim that these groups, made up largely of former insurgents, could eventually become uncontrolled militias if they are not merged with security forces or given alternative jobs.
The US military pays around 300 dollars a month to each member of these groups, whose main job is to guard local neighborhoods and infrastructure.
In the past few months these groups have been targeted by Al-Qaeda, and on Thursday several volunteers who had gathered to join one group were killed by a suicide bomber near Baquba north of Baghdad.
Hakim also called for accelerating the political process, including completing a cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The SIIC is one of the main parties leading Maliki's government.
And he urged the speedy release of innocent detainees held in US and Iraqi prisons.
"I also urge traders and investment companies in the world to improve Iraq's economy," said Hakim, who returned to Iraq last month after extensive medical treatment in neighboring Iran for lung cancer.