(Reuters) - A powerful Shi'ite Muslim leader in Iraq called on Friday for U.S.-backed, mainly Sunni neighborhood patrols to be brought under tight government control with a more balanced sectarian makeup.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the biggest party in the Shi'ite -led government, said the patrols known to Iraqis as "Awakening Councils" had helped reduce violence but should only play an auxiliary role.
His remarks highlight the uneasiness of Iraqi Shi'ite leaders over the prospect of organized Sunni armed groups that could turn against them when U.S. forces withdraw.
"It is necessary that these Awakenings should be an arm of the government in chasing criminals and terrorists but not a substitute for it," he told hundreds of Shi'ites at his Baghdad compound in a speech marking the Muslim Eid al- Adha feast.
"Weapons should only be in the hands of the government," he said. He added that the makeup of the units should be more balanced in religiously mixed regions and that they should only operate in areas where violence remained high.
A suicide car bomber killed four policemen and a civilian and wounded eight people on Friday when he blew up his car outside a police station southwest of Baghdad.
The United States puts the number of the mainly Sunni Arab patrolmen at some 71,000 and credits them as an effective force in fighting Sunni al Qaeda militants.
The U.S. military, which pays most of the men around $10 each a day, acknowledges that some of them may have had links to insurgent groups but says they undergo background checks.
Under U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki's Shi'ite -led government has decided to put most of the neighborhood patrols on its payroll by mid-2008. It says it will integrate some patrol members into its security forces while others will be given training for civilian jobs.
After the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sunnis and Shi'ites engaged in a vicious cycle of violence that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Even with violence at its lowest levels in nearly two years, politicians from both sects remain at odds over how to share power, stalling the passage of crucial laws in the parliament.
In his speech, Hakim said it was necessary to convince parties that have pulled out of Maliki's government to return. The Sunni Arab Accordance Front quit the government in August over disputes with Maliki's Shi'ite coalition.
U.S. officials worry that the slow progress towards national reconciliation could eventually erode security gains and say al Qaeda remains a formidable foe.
The lull in bloodshed does not appear to have made a difference yet for around 2 million Iraqi children who continue to face threats including poor nutrition, disease and interrupted education, the United Nations said on Friday.
In a report entitled "Little respite for Iraq's children in 2007," the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) said hundreds of children lost their lives or were wounded by violence, while many more lost their breadwinners to killing and kidnappings.
About 1,350 children were detained by the military or police, many for alleged security violations, the report said.
In Baghdad, new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held talks with Maliki during an unannounced visit to Baghdad.
Rudd, who swept aside 11 years of conservative rule in an election on November 24, plans to withdraw the last remaining 550 Australian combat troops in mid-2008. He and Maliki said they agreed to expand agricultural cooperation and military training.