Troops seek abducted Iraqis

Kidnappings shake faith in government

November 19, 2006|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi forces backed by U.S. helicopters swept through a Shiite slum in the capital yesterday, searching for Iraqis seized in kidnappings that have shaken confidence in Iraq's government and security forces.

Search efforts were also under way in southern Iraq for four Americans and one Austrian seized Thursday when the supply convoy they were guarding was ambushed by gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms near the border with Kuwait, British and Iraqi officials said.

North of the capital, a string of clashes involving U.S. forces, Iraqi police and gunmen in the fractious city of Baqouba 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 Mujahideen Companies claimed on Al Alam, an Iranian Arabic-language satellite news channel, that it was holding the five captive foreigners. The group offered no evidence to back its claim.

Nine truck drivers seized with the security guards were released the same day, according to a statement issued by their employer, the Kuwait-based Crescent Security Group Inc.

A British security contractor was killed and another injured in a separate 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 later collected the dead man's body and rescued four British survivors, one of whom was treated for injuries from the attack.

In Baghdad, residents reported fierce gunfire as Iraqi commandos with U.S advisers raided at least two houses in the vast Sadr City slum, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-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 that intelligence indicated an armed group there was holding people kidnapped this week. Officials did not immediately specify which hostages might be there or whether any were 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 were missing yesterday, but the Interior Ministry maintained that all the hostages had been released.

On Thursday, gunmen dressed in police uniforms raided a Baghdad tea shop, abducting at least 15 people. None of them has been heard from.

The attacks have stoked the sectarian divides that threaten to unravel Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's fragile coalition government. The Higher Education Ministry is led by a Sunni Arab, who has blamed his Shiite counterpart at Interior for not preventing 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 the victims turn up every day in the capital. At least 39 more bodies were found in Baghdad in the 24 hours ending last night.

Instead of cracking down on these militias, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani further enflamed tensions by announcing an arrest warrant had been issued against hard-line Sunni cleric Harith al-Dhari. Sunni political and religious leaders and some secular Shiites criticized the move yesterday.

"This decision was made by the Maliki government to pour oil on the fire of sectarian strife," Sheikh Mohammed Ahmed told worshipers in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi. "If the government arrests him, ... we will all take up arms."

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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