Major battle in insurgent stronghold of Baqouba kills 18

Sunday, November 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An hours-long street battle pitted Iraqi and American forces against Sunni insurgents Saturday in the increasingly violent city of Baqouba.

City police said at least 18 people were killed and 19 wounded.

Nationwide, police and morgue officials said the death toll was 53, including those killed in Baqouba.

The city was in chaos and Baqouba's police media office said it was not known how many of the dead were Sunni insurgent fighters. The Americans reported no dead or wounded among U.S. forces.

Scores of civilians in Baqouba -- about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad -- have been killed in the violence in the past two weeks alone.

Iraqi solders backed by U.S. helicopters also swept through the Sadr City section of the capital Saturday to search for dozens of men abducted from an Iraqi government office.

Gunmen dressed like Interior Ministry commandos kidnapped about 150 men Tuesday from a central Baghdad office that handles academic grants and exchanges. They were taken away in about 20 pickup trucks and roughly half were released Tuesday night and Wednesday.

The U.S. military did not say in a statement whether any hostages were found. No casualties were reported among coalition forces, but Iraqi police said three Iraqi civilians were wounded.

Authorities believe the mass kidnapping was carried out by the Mahdi Army, the heavily armed militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The kidnapping has raised questions about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's commitment to wiping out the militias of his prime political backers: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Sadr's Sadrist Movement.

Sadr City has long been a Shiite militia stronghold.

Coalition forces also searched Saturday for four American security contractors missing in an attack on their convoy in southern Iraq.

Four Americans and one Austrian have been missing since Thursday when their Kuwait-based security convoy was hijacked, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael McClellan.

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