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Raids in Sadr City linked to missing Britons

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops raided Baghdad’s Sadr City slum Wednesday, a day after five British citizens were kidnapped from a nearby government building in an assault that the Iraqi foreign minister said had the hallmarks of a militia strike.

Two Iraqis working for the U.S. Embassy were reported kidnapped Wednesday, and at least 48 Iraqis were killed or found slain in other violence. Among them were two journalists.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of two soldiers in a roadside bombing Wednesday, and the noncombat death of a soldier Tuesday. At least 3,470 U.S. troops have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.

Early Wednesday, joint forces sealed off parts of the vast Sadr City slum, a bastion of Al Mahdi, the Shiite Muslim militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr. Troops entered homes demanding information about the missing Britons, residents said.

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The U.S., however, would not comment on whether the raids were related to the kidnapping.

Officials said eight suspects were detained and one was injured in the operation. Two men sleeping on their rooftops because of the heat were killed when gunfire erupted during one of the raids, Iraqi police said. Four people reportedly were injured.

The five Britons, a computer expert and four security guards, were seized Tuesday from the Finance Ministry’s administrative building by dozens of men in Iraqi police uniforms. They sped off in what appeared to be police vehicles, apparently headed toward Sadr City.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that the raid was a “professional job” by people who appeared to have inside information.

“The way they carried out the abduction, the numbers, the cars that were used, it has all the hallmarks of an organized operation by a militia,” he told The Times.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees police, detained 16 guards who allegedly offered no resistance to the kidnappers, Zebari said.

He said a number of raids had been conducted in Sadr City to search for the kidnap victims.

“The area [where they were seized] is close to Sadr City.... The likelihood is that it is one of those militias operating in that part of Baghdad,” Zebari said. But he said there was no firm evidence linking Sadr’s militia to the abductions.

Some Iraqi officials speculated that the kidnapping could be retribution for the killing Friday of an Al Mahdi commander in a British-backed operation in the southern city of Basra.

A member of Sadr’s political committee in Sadr City, a district named after the cleric’s revered father, denied that Sadr had anything to do with the abductions.

“Their allegations are totally untrue,” said Waleed Kremawi. “Sadr City is already tense, and we don’t need anything to increase the tensions. We are trying to avoid it.”

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, in Berlin for a meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, said British officials were working closely with Iraqi authorities to establish the facts and secure the swift release of the hostages.

“This is clearly a very distressing time for all concerned,” she said. “Foreign Office officials are offering help and assistance to the next of kin. It is not sensible at this stage to speculate on what might have happened.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking from Sierra Leone in West Africa, said, “We know the dangers and challenges there, but we shouldn’t let those that are prepared to use kidnapping and terror succeed.”

Iraqi officials acknowledge that militiamen have infiltrated the country’s security forces, using them as cover for abductions and killings. But there have been no incidents of this type since the launch of the latest security plan in mid-February.

Sadr, whose militiamen staged two major uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, had instructed his followers to pull back during the current crackdown. But frustration has been building among some factions over bombings in Shiite communities. There also has been evidence of a rise in revenge attacks against Sunni Muslims.

Police in Baghdad on Wednesday recovered the bodies of 23 men, apparent victims of sectarian killings.

The raids in Sadr City, meanwhile, rekindled anger at U.S. troops. One furious resident, a 28-year-old police officer, said U.S. soldiers crashed an armored vehicle into his home about 2 a.m., handcuffed and blindfolded those inside and pointed lasers at their chests.

“They were hitting us, asking, ‘Where are the kidnapped British?’ ” said Ahmed Jizani. “I told them that we are five brothers in the police force. How could we do that? They said, ‘OK, then tell us where are they?’ ”

Local television showed video of the man’s home, a collapsed outside wall and piles of rubble.

Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said he could not immediately confirm or deny the man’s allegations. But, he said, U.S. forces “tend not to take that heavy-handed an approach.”

The Iraqi police said several houses were damaged when large vehicles belonging to the joint forces attempted to squeeze down a narrow street.

The State Department, meanwhile, told the Associated Press that two Iraqis working for the U.S. Embassy were believed to have been kidnapped. No further details were available.

The two slain journalists were identified as Nazar Abdul Wahid of the Aswat al Iraq news agency and Abdul Rahman Isawi of the National Iraqi News Agency.

Wahid was killed Wednesday by gunmen in a pickup truck in Amarah, police said. Isawi and two relatives were kidnapped and slain Monday night. Five family members were killed trying to rescue them, police said.

At least nine journalists have been reported slain in Iraq in May, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said.

In other developments, security control of Iraq’s three northern Kurdish provinces were officially handed over at a ceremony in Irbil. Iraqi authorities now have responsibility for seven of the country’s 18 provinces.

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ned Parker, Saif Hameed, Raheem Salman and Wail Alhafith in Baghdad and Kim Murphy in London and special correspondents in Baghdad, Fallouja, Hillah, Kirkuk and Najaf contributed to this report.


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