Sunni insurgents seize Shiite civilians

Incident may be effort to create sectarian war

April 17, 2005|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sunni Muslim insurgents seized dozens of Shiite civilians in Madain southeast of Baghdad and are demanding that Shiite families leave town, residents and Iraqi officials said yesterday.

Reports varied on the number of hostages. Some residents said 60 men were being held, and others reported more than 75. A tribal leader from Madain denied the reports, but fleeing residents said scores of gunmen had seized the town, set up illegal checkpoints and were cruising the streets in pickup trucks.

The incident might be the latest guerrilla effort to turn the insurgency into a broader sectarian war pitting Sunnis, Shiites and ethnic Kurds against one another.

There have been reports of tit-for-tat kidnappings between Sunni and Shiite gangs in and around Madain, which also is known as Salman Pak. Some Shiites have also formed small militias to counter Sunni insurgent violence, residents said.

Reuters news service quoted a Shiite political source as saying that negotiations had failed to win the release of the hostages. The Iraqi military was preparing a possible assault to free the hostages, the news agency said.

U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television said an Iraqi army officer had infiltrated the town and confirmed that gunmen using loudspeakers were warning Shiites to leave.

"The Shiite mosque near my home was blown up two days ago," said Ali Saleh, 35, a state worker from Madain, about a 40-minute drive from Baghdad. "I'm afraid the terrorists will kill all the Shiites, so I took my family and left."

Like Saleh, who said he was staying with in-laws in Baghdad, scores of other families were reportedly leaving Madain for Baghdad and Kut to the south, which saw violence yesterday as a police officer was shot and killed in the center of town.

"I passed the Salman Pak entry gate late in the afternoon yesterday," Sabah Kadhem, a 30-year-old laborer, said yesterday. "I was stopped at a checkpoint by masked gunmen. ... They were stopping everybody.

"I saw about 40 people, blindfolded, handcuffed and lying down," Kadhem said. "There were no security forces present, neither American nor Iraqi."

Kadhem said U.S. forces occasionally patrol the town, sometimes with Iraqi soldiers or police alongside. But Iraqi forces never venture into town alone, he said.

In other violence yesterday, a suicide bomber killed at least seven people at a restaurant in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. At least three of the dead were police officers, officials said.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, insurgents fatally shot three members of the Iraqi security forces as the men headed to work.

A roadside bomb killed a U.S. military police officer near Taji, north of Baghdad. Also, the military reported the death Friday of an American soldier near Tikrit.

Also yesterday, a suicide car bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy on the road to the Baghdad airport killed a civilian bystander and wounded two others. A Turkish truck driver was reported killed by a roadside bomb north of Baiji.

In southeastern Iraq, 11 detainees angry over their treatment by U.S. captors broke out of Camp Bucca, the military's largest detention center in the country, by climbing through a hole in the fence, the Associated Press reported. Ten were recaptured, and authorities were searching for the remaining escapee, the U.S. military and Iraqi forces said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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