- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

MADAIN, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi troops raided a central Iraqi town yesterday after Sunni militants took as many as 150 Shi’ite Muslims hostage and threatened to kill the captives if other Shi’ites did not leave town.

National Security Minister Qassem Dawoud said Madain, near Baghdad and in an area dubbed the “Triangle of Death” because of the frequency of terrorist attacks, was now under the control of Iraqi and U.S.-led multinational forces.

“They are raiding areas where it is suspected that hostages may be,” he told Dubai-based Al Arabiya television.

Iraq’s state-run Al Iraqiya television said the insurgents had threatened to kill the hostages within 24 hours, and a senior Shi’ite official in Baghdad said Iraqi and U.S.-led forces were expected to launch a major overnight rescue bid.

“The number of hostages is 150. They include women and children, according to police intelligence officials I have spoken with,” said the official, asking not to be identified.

“Iraqi and Americans forces surrounding the town plan a big raid to rescue them tonight,” he said.

Al Arabiya TV reported the rescue operation had already begun, but no independent confirmation was immediately available.

Earlier, officials said peaceful efforts to secure the release of the hostages, seized by insurgents carrying rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s on Friday, had failed.

The insurgents had vowed to kill the hostages unless all Shi’ites left Madain, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad. The insurgents had entered Madain in 15 cars, and witnesses said there were no police or government forces around at the time.

“There are security problems in Madain with tribal implications. Some people are trying to use it to create sectarian strife,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.

The Shi’ite official in Baghdad said some of the Madain hostages had been taken to two schools in the mixed Sunni and Shi’ite town and a mosque in the adjacent town of Salman Pak. A growing number of families have been fleeing Madain since the hostage standoff began, the official said.

Earlier yesterday, insurgents appeared to be moving freely in Madain, and nervous residents were reluctant to answer questions about the hostages.

“Why are you asking about this?” said a man in the market, declining to give his name. Minutes later, a car carrying five masked men with AK-47s drove by slowly.

The abductions were the latest in a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings caused by growing antagonism between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the town.

“For weeks, there have been kidnappings by one group and then the other,” said a police official, who asked not to be identified.

Iraq’s leaders have been trying to play down sectarian tensions as they struggle to form a government that can balance the interests of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds after decades of iron-fisted rule by Saddam Hussein.

Majority Shi’ites, long oppressed under Saddam, and the Kurds are now the most powerful political forces. Under Saddam, the minority Arab Sunnis enjoyed huge privileges.

Sunni militants and foreign Islamic fighters are blamed by Iraqi authorities and the United States for an insurgency that has included suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. The insurgents often have targeted Shi’ites.

The hostage-taking and a resurgence of violence will step up pressure on Iraq’s new leaders to deliver on promises to improve security after the Jan. 30 national assembly elections.

A suicide bomber yesterday entered a restaurant in Baqouba, northeast of the Iraqi capital, and killed at least nine persons, including six policemen, a National Guard official said. In Haditha, about 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, gunmen killed police Chief Hussein al-Jughaifee, his son, nephew and cousin, and then blew up his house, police said.

A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb that targeted an armored column near Taji, a town just north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

In the southeast, 11 Iraqi detainees angry about their treatment by American jailers broke out of Camp Bucca, the U.S. military’s largest detention center, by cutting through a fence. Ten were recaptured, the Associated Press reported, citing U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

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