Iraqi, U.S. forces search Sadr City for five abducted British citizens
Thursday, May 31, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Dozens of U.S. Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles took up positions around Sadr City at nightfall Wednesday, as American forces pressed the search for five Britons kidnapped in a mock police raid that Iraqi officials said was carried out by the Mahdi Army Shiite 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 Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as saying the Mahdi Army "will be profoundly sorry" if it carried out the assault.
Much of the Mahdi Army militia is said to be loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who resurfaced last week after nearly four months in hiding, apparently in Iran, and demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq.
Al-Sadr's return appeared to be partly an effort to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting. It was unclear whether the 33-year-old cleric would have been aware of or condoned the kidnapping of the five British citizens -- four bodyguards and an employee of a management consulting firm.
When al-Sadr went underground at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown on Baghdad 15 weeks ago, he ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with American forces. Nevertheless, his return likely complicates U.S. efforts to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told BBC radio that the government was "vigorously" working to find the attackers but acknowledged the government has long believed that militia members have infiltrated its security forces.
"The number of people who were involved in the operation -- to seal off the building, to set road blocks, to get into the building with such confidence -- [means they] must have some connection," he said.
A top Interior Ministry official, who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said suspicion immediately fell on the Mahdi Army because it was in control of the area around the data processing center and would have blocked such a massive operation by another group.
Fatih-Allah's report to Finance Minister Bayan Jabr revealed key new details about the attack. Portions of the report were read to The Associated Press on the telephone by a government official who did so on condition of anonymity because the document was not for public distribution.
The report said four men in civilian clothing appeared at the center about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday -- 15 minutes before the kidnapping.
The account said the men claimed they were from the government anti-fraud commission and looked through each room in the center, then quickly left the building.
At about 11 a.m. dozens of men in army and police uniforms, the report said, burst into the building, disarmed guards and went directly into the room where the five Britons were working. The five were seized and rushed out of the building to 19 waiting four-wheel-drive vehicles. The convoy then drove away to the east.
The building sits on a side street off Palestine Street, a major thoroughfare in eastern Baghdad and not far from Baghdad's district of Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army.
Fatih-Allah's report said that Iraq's security ministers, meaning the Defense and Interior ministers, said the assault was the work of the Mahdi Army and quoted them as relaying the remark allegedly made by Petraeus.
The five kidnapped Britons included four bodyguards working for the Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld and one employee of BearingPoint, a McLean, Va.-based management consulting firm.
There was speculation in Baghdad that the abductions were revenge for the British military's killing of the Mahdi Army commander in the southern city of Basra.
But members of the militia, who live in Sadr City and professed to know nothing about the kidnapping, said they did not believe the kidnapping was revenge for the killing of their Basra leader. The men said organizing such a big operation would have taken far longer than the three days that elapsed between the militant's death Friday and the Tuesday kidnapping.
Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, who lives in the GardaWorld compound, said it was "a possibility" the kidnapping was a response to the killing.
"We're working very hard with various religious leaders to try to work at this issue, but it's not easy. It's very, very difficult," he told the AP of efforts to free the men.
White said he had carried out only indirect talks with possible mediators and refused to comment on who may have taken the men.
"We haven't spoken directly to anybody," he said, adding that no demands had been issued by the kidnappers. "It's a very complex situation at the moment, and we have to be very careful."
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said officials were doing all they could to ensure the men were released quickly. "We are working closely with the Iraqi authorities to establish the facts and doing all we can to secure their swift and safe return," she said in Germany.
Fatih-Allah's report said U.S. troops surrounded the neighborhood around the center at dawn Wednesday and were joined by some British forces in an apparently fruitless house-to-house search for the men.
Iraqi forces also established a special battalion of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to search for the men, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
"We are conducting search operations near the site where the abduction took place," he said Wednesday. "Maybe today or in the coming few days, we will find them with the help of secret intelligence."
The Mahdi Army members, who refused to allow use of their names for fear of arrest, said searching Sadr City was likely to be pointless. They said their organization, if involved, would have moved the Britons to locations outside Baghdad.
Residents of Sadr City said hundreds of American and Iraqi troops sealed off areas of the Shiite neighborhood overnight and carried out arrest raids that lasted until dawn. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
The U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday that it had arrested five suspected militants and one suspected leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were believed part of a cell that smuggled weapons from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the statement said.
The statement did not link the raid to the missing men.
Police, Iraqi military, hospital and morgue officials reported a total of 72 people killed or found dead nationwide Wednesday.
The U.S. military late Wednesday reported the deaths of three more soldiers, two killed in a roadside bombing and one who died of a non-combat cause. The bombing victims died Wednesday, the third soldier on Tuesday. Their deaths raised to 119 the number of soldiers killed this month, the third-deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.
In Washington, Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military believed a helicopter that crashed Monday north of Baghdad was brought down by small-arms fire. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, has claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter.
AP writers Ravi Nessman in Baghdad and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.