U.S. frees Iraqis held in al-Qaida hide-out

At least 41 captives rescued after tip from residents

May 28, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. forces freed at least 41 kidnapped Iraqis during a raid yesterday on an al-Qaida hide-out northeast of Baghdad, the military said. Some of the victims appeared to have been tortured and suffered broken bones.

The release came on a day when at least 64 Iraqis were killed or found slain in violence across the country, and the U.S. command announced the deaths of two more American soldiers.

Acting on a tip from residents, U.S. forces in violence-wracked Diyala raided a site in palm groves south of the provincial capital, Baqouba. There were conflicting accounts of the number of captives, with some officers putting the figure at 41 and others at 42.

Individuals believed to have been guarding the facility were seen fleeing, but none was apprehended, said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

Some of the captives appeared to be suffering from heat exhaustion. Others gave harrowing accounts of having been hung from the ceiling and tortured, said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman. Evidence of abuse, including broken limbs, appeared to back up their account.

Some said they had been held for four months, Garver said. Most were middle-age men, but one said he was 14. The victims were taken to a safe location and were receiving medical treatment, the military said.

They were found near Buhriz, a Sunni Arab village about five miles south of Baqouba, U.S. and Iraqi officers said.

Diyala, a religiously mixed province that long has served as a redoubt of Sunni Arab insurgents fighting the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, has suffered escalating violence since the start of a crackdown in Baghdad 3 1/2 months ago. U.S. officers say they believe insurgents fleeing the Iraqi capital have sought sanctuary in the neighboring province, where the Americans recently deployed an additional 3,000 forces.

U.S. officers said yesterday's operation indicated residents were turning against the insurgents.

"This is a sign that the people are fed up with [al-Qaida in Iraq] doing bad things to good people," Donnelly said. "They are communicating a very strong message: We are fed up with this, and we are not going to sit back and do nothing and die."

Meanwhile, in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, 70 police officers resigned from an elite police unit and handed over their weapons, saying they were afraid of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, police said.

Last week, Mahdi Army militants captured at least seven members of a rapid deployment force during a gunbattle, police said. The militants badly beat the police and warned them to stop their offensive against the militia or they would kill them, an officer said on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

One of the two U.S. soldiers killed Saturday died in a roadside bombing in Diyala and the other in a blast in western Baghdad, the military said yesterday.

Also yesterday, police in the capital recovered the bodies of at least 44 men shot and killed execution-style, including 12 abandoned in a lot in a mostly Sunni part of west Baghdad. It was the largest number recovered in a single day since the start of the security crackdown in mid-February.

Among the fatal attacks of the day, gunmen in three cars tossed smoke grenades into a crowd gathered in a central Baghdad market area and then opened fire, police said. A minibus pulled up amid the chaos, and the assailants turned their guns on the vehicle, killing the driver and a passenger.

Renowned calligrapher Khalil al-Zahawi was killed in a drive-by shooting on his way to a Baghdad coffee shop, police said.

West of the capital, a car bomb ripped through a market in a section of Ramadi dominated by Kurds and other minorities, killing at least seven people and injuring 12, police said.

Police in the northern city of Kirkuk said the body of an employee of a Kurdish-run television station was found in his burned-out car Saturday night.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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