- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of Iraqi and American troops cordoned off sections of Baghdad’s Sadr City slum yesterday and conducted raids in an effort to find five British citizens thought to have been abducted by the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia.

Separately, the United States confirmed that two Iraqi employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were thought to have been kidnapped, and announced that enemy fire brought down the U.S. helicopter that crashed and killed two soldiers in Diyala province on Monday.

If proved to be the work of the Mahdi Army, the kidnappings of the five Britons could be retaliation for the killing by British forces last week of the militia’s commander in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

In Washington, U.S. officials said President Bush held a video conference with Iraqi leaders and would like to see a lengthy U.S. troop presence in Iraq like the one in South Korea to provide stability but not in a front-line combat role.

Mr. Bush urged the Iraqi leaders to make progress toward an oil-revenue-sharing plan and political reforms to help prevent a slide into all-out civil war between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.

The five men were pulled out of a Finance Ministry office by about 40 heavily armed men in police uniforms in broad daylight Tuesday and driven in a convoy of 19 four-wheel-drive vehicles toward Sadr City, said Iraqi officials in the Interior and Finance ministries.

A top Interior Ministry official, who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said authorities were working on the assumption that the five were abducted by the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr because the area from which they were taken is controlled by the militia.

A secret incident report about the abductions — written by Najwa Fatih-Allah, director-general of the Finance Ministry’s data processing center, where the Britons were seized — quotes Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as saying the Mahdi Army “will be profoundly sorry” if it carried out the assault.

Residents of Sadr City said hundreds of American and Iraqi troops sealed off areas of the Shi’ite neighborhood overnight and carried out a series of arrest raids that lasted until dawn.

The U.S. military said it had arrested five persons suspected of being militants and one person suspected of being the leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were thought to be part of a cell that smuggled weapons from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the military said.

Meanwhile, in Arbill, in a display of pomp showcasing Kurdish military muscle, U.S. forces handed over responsibility for security in Iraq’s three northern provinces to the Kurdish regional government yesterday.

Iraq’s Kurds have long-cherished separatist ambitions. Although officials said the region will work closely with the national government in Baghdad, the symbolism of the moment was not lost on the former guerrilla fighters.

“It’s a sort of independence,” Col. Shadman Ali of the peshmerga, the Kurdish security force, told Agence France-Presse.

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