- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

NEAR MADAIN, Iraq — Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. troops had the town of Madain surrounded yesterday after reports of Sunni militant kidnappings of as many as 100 Shi’ite residents, but there were growing indications the incident had been exaggerated.

The town of about 1,000 families, evenly divided between Shi’ites and Sunnis, sits about 15 miles south of the capital in what the U.S. military has called the Triangle of Death because it has become a stronghold of the militant insurgency.

An Associated Press photographer and television cameraman who were in or near the town yesterday said large numbers of Iraqi forces had sealed it off, supported by U.S. forces who were keeping a low profile farther from the edge of Madain. But people were going about their business normally, shops were open and tea houses were full, the cameraman said. Residents contacted by telephone also said everything was normal in Madain.

American military officials said they were not aware of any U.S. role in what had been described as a sectarian standoff in which the Sunni militants were threatening to kill their Shi’ite captives if all other Shi’ites did not leave the town.

National Security Minister Qassim Dawoud told parliament yesterday that three battalions of Iraqi soldiers, police and U.S. forces were planning a large-scale assault on the region.

A Defense Ministry official, Haidar Khayon, said Iraqi forces had raided the town and freed about 15 Shi’ite families and captured five hostage-takers in a skirmish with light gunfire.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani urged government officials to resolve the crisis peacefully, his office said.

By the end of the day, however, Iraqi officials had produced no hostages and Iraqi military officials who had given information about the trouble in Madain could not be reached for further details.

Also yesterday, Sheik Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Sunni clerics, denied hostages had been taken in Madain. “This news is completely untrue,” he told Al Jazeera television.

The country’s most-feared insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, in a statement yesterday on an Islamic Web site known for its militant content, also denied any hostages had been taken.

Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million population, but were dominant under Saddam Hussein. They have become disempowered since U.S.-led forces drove Saddam from power two years ago.

Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents killed eight Iraqis in attacks across the country. The U.S. military said three American soldiers had been killed and seven wounded as insurgents fired mortar rounds late Saturday at a U.S. Marine base near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

The assault raised to 24 the number of persons who died in Iraq Saturday, including an American civilian. The U.S. Embassy identified the American civilian victim as Marla Ruzicka, the 28-year-old founder of the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict. CIVIC began conducting a door-to-door survey trying to determine the number of civilian casualties in Iraq soon after the war ended.

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