Kidnap claim made as troops seek Iraqi, foreign captives
Iraqi forces backed by U.S. helicopters swept through a Shiite slum in the capital Saturday, searching for Iraqis seized in kidnappings that have shaken confidence in Iraq’s government and security forces.
Search efforts were also underway in southern Iraq for five private security guards, four Americans and one Austrian, seized Thursday when the supply convoy they were protecting was ambushed by gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms near the border with Kuwait, British and Iraqi officials said.
North of Baghdad, a string of clashes involving U.S. forces, Iraqi police and gunmen in the fractious city of Baqubah sent residents fleeing for cover. At least 15 people were killed, bringing the number of Iraqi deaths reported across the country to at least 69.
A group calling itself the Islamic Mujahedin Companies claimed on Al Alam, an Iranian Arabic-language satellite news channel, that it was holding the five foreigners. The group offered no evidence to back its claim. A man with his face wrapped in a checked scarf was shown reading a statement, which the anchor said demanded the release of Iraqi prisoners from U.S. and British prisons. No audio was broadcast.
Nine truck drivers seized with the security guards were released the same day, according to a statement issued by the drivers’ employer, Kuwait-based Crescent Security Group Inc.
A British security contractor was killed and another injured in an attack on a civilian convoy that took place farther north the following day, said Capt. Tane Dunlop, a British military spokesman.
Contrary to initial reports, U.S. and British forces were not involved in the incident, he said. But he said British forces collected the dead man’s body and rescued four British survivors, one of whom was treated for injuries sustained in the attack.
In Baghdad, residents reported fierce gunfire as Iraqi commandos with U.S advisors raided at least two houses in the vast Sadr City slum, a stronghold of the Al Mahdi army, a militia nominally loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. No casualties were reported among U.S. and Iraqi forces, but police said at least three civilians were injured.
The U.S. military said in a statement that intelligence indicated an armed group there was holding people kidnapped last week. Officials did not specify which captives might be there or whether any had been found.
The raid followed an assault Tuesday on a building belonging to the Higher Education Ministry in which as many as 150 people were abducted. Dozens of gunmen wearing police commando uniforms participated in the attack and were seen driving their victims toward Sadr City.
Sunni Arab leaders said dozens of men abducted were still missing Saturday, but the Interior Ministry maintained all the captives had been released.
On Thursday, gunmen in police uniforms raided a Baghdad tea shop, abducting at least 15 people. None of them has been heard from since.
The attacks have widened the sectarian divides that threaten to break apart Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s fragile coalition government.
The Higher Education Ministry is headed by a Sunni Arab who has blamed his Shiite counterpart at the Interior Ministry for failing to prevent Tuesday’s kidnapping.
Sunni leaders and U.S. officials believe militiamen operating under the cover of the heavily Shiite police force are responsible for many abductions. Bodies of victims, who have been tortured and shot, turn up every day in the capital. At least 39 more bodies were found in parts of Baghdad in the 24 hours ending Saturday night.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani has not cracked down on the militias, as the U.S. has sought, and he raised tensions by going on national television Thursday to announce that an arrest warrant had been issued against Sunni cleric Harith Dhari, an outspoken critic of the Shiite-led government. Sunni political and religious leaders and some secular Shiites decried the move Saturday.
“This decision was made by the Maliki government to pour oil on the fire of sectarian strife,” Sheik Mohammed Ahmed told hundreds of worshipers in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. “If the government arrests him, the atmosphere in Iraq will be taut with violence and we will all take up arms.”
In Fallouja, another Sunni center west of the capital, demonstrators took to the streets Saturday in support of Dhari.
Gunfire, mortar blasts and other attacks killed at least 30 Iraqis across the country.
Among the dead were a prominent member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite political party, and his wife. The couple were gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the mostly Sunni west Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, police said.
In Baqubah, a Sunni-dominated city, Shiite militiamen raided downtown shops, torching several of them and killing at least seven people, police said. Shop owners shuttered their businesses and dashed for cover.
Gunmen later attacked a police unit based in a school on the northeast side of the city, killing three officers and injuring two, police said.
Other gunmen ambushed a U.S. patrol with a roadside bomb and grenade fire. One civilian was injured in a blistering exchange of fire, police said. The U.S. military did not comment on the incident.
Just more than an hour later, two mortar rounds slammed into a west Baqubah neighborhood, killing five people and injuring 10 others, including a child, police said.
Hospital officials said they received nine unidentified bodies from across the city, some bearing signs of torture. It was not immediately clear whether they included any of the casualties reported by police.
In the southern town of Zubayr, police said they had recovered the body of a muezzin kidnapped Thursday as he left the mosque where he would summon worshipers to pray.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also killed 13 suspected insurgents and detained 24 in and around Baqubah, Tikrit, Hit, Yousifiya and Baghdad, the military and police said.
Times special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Kirkuk, Basra and Ramadi contributed to this report.