Kidnapped Sunnis rescued by U.S., Iraqi forces

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. and Iraqi forces Thursday rescued seven Sunni Arab men seized by suspected Shiite militiamen near Baghdad, part of a campaign to suppress sectarian death squads responsible for hundreds of deaths this year.

The kidnapping was the latest in a wave that is plaguing the country. Many of the abductions are part of the sectarian warfare plaguing the Iraqi capital, home to large communities of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Iraqi police said the trouble started when dozens of gunmen, some of them wearing military uniforms, raided two Sunni villages near Khan Bani Saad, 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, and abducted 10 young men.

Village leaders and clerics alerted police and U.S. soldiers, who rushed to the scene, clashed with the gunmen and rescued seven of the hostages, police said. Three others were missing and presumed taken away by gunmen, police said.

U.S. troops killed at least one kidnapper and wounded another, said Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, commander of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor. Some of the hostages had been severely beaten, he told Associated Press TV News.

More than 30 people were taken into custody, Iraqi police said, and interrogators were trying to determine their identities. Some gunmen told police they belong to the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and had come from Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.

Kidnappings are believed to have risen steadily since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, although police believe few are reported.

A study by the Brookings Institution estimated that between 30 and 40 Iraqis were kidnapped per day in the Baghdad area alone during March, compared with two a day in the capital in January 2004.

Fisher said the incident may have been “tribal in nature.” He did not elaborate, but tensions have been running high for months between Shiite and Sunni communities in religiously mixed Diyala province.

With the rise in sectarian tensions, much of the violence has shifted from Sunni insurgent strongholds such as Anbar province to Baghdad and other areas with a mixed population.

The shift has impacted heavily on civilians, many of whom have been targeted simply because of their religious affiliation. According to the Health Ministry, 952 people were killed nationwide last month in “terrorist” violence, among them 686 civilians.

By comparison, ministry figures showed that 548 civilians were killed nationwide in January, 545 in February and 769 in March.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. command, said attacks against civilians were up by about 80 percent over the level of six months ago.

He blamed the increase on al-Qaida in Iraq and its Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who he said were trying to ignite a Sunni-Shiite war.

“We acknowledge that the primary targets of the insurgency are the innocent men, women and children of Iraq,” Lynch told reporters. He said attacks against civilians were aimed at enflaming sectarian hatred “and then folks like the militias, either Shiite militias or Sunni militias, are carrying out retaliatory attacks and killing innocent men, women and children.”

Three U.S. soldiers were killed when roadside bombs hit two U.S. Army convoys southwest of Baghdad, the military said. The U.S. command also announced that a U.S. soldier died Tuesday from non-combat related wounds.

Their deaths raised to at least 2,430 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

President Jalal Talabani has appealed to clerics to condemn sectarian violence, which has raised fears of civil war.

In a show of solidarity with the Sunnis, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ordered all Shiite mosques in the mostly Sunni town of Zubayr to close through Saturday to protest the assassination of a Sunni cleric there.

Al-Sistani’s order followed the slaying of Sheik Khaled Ali Obeid al-Saadoun, who was gunned down Wednesday with two associates as he left a mosque. The ayatollah has often spoken out against sectarian violence and played a key role in curbing attacks after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February.

U.S. officials hope the new unity government of Shiites, Kurds and Shiites can win public confidence and in time quell the violence so that American and other international troops can go home.

The framework of the government was put in place last month with the appointment of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister-designate. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is trying to put together a Cabinet, but the process has bogged down over who will lead the defense and interior ministries.

Shiite officials said al-Maliki may ask parliament to approve the rest of his Cabinet within a few days while negotiations continue on the two contested ministries.

Also Thursday, insurgents attacked U.S. Marines from an abandoned hotel in Haqlaniyah, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The Marines responded with small arms fire, a shoulder-fired rocket and an airstrike on the hotel. There were no U.S. casualties but one child suffered minor injuries, the military said.

In other violence Thursday, according to police:

-At least 14 people were killed in Baghdad, including five municipal street cleaners in an explosion.

-A Shiite professor, Widad al-Shimri, and her 7-year-old daughter were slain as they drove through Baqouba.

-A professor of Islamic law, Dr. Khalaf al-Jumaili, was shot dead after assailants stopped his car in Fallujah.

-One policeman was killed when gunmen fired on a police station in Kirkuk.

-Police killed a man who tried to plant a bomb under the car of Baqouba’s mayor.

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