BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sunni Muslim insurgents seized hostages in the town of Madain Saturday and ordered Shiite residents to depart in what Iraqi officials said was an attempt to cleanse the town of Shiites.
Accounts of the events varied widely – an Interior Ministry official said the number of hostages was 10 while Iraqi television said 150 were being held – but the unfolding drama appeared to be one of the most serious confrontations between Sunni and Shiite factions since the Jan. 30 elections, which were dominated by Shiite candidates amid a Sunni boycott.
More than 1,000 police and soldiers had been dispatched Saturday to Madain to quell the disturbance, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Madain is an ethnically mixed town about 20 miles south of Baghdad. It is the site of the ancient city of Ctesiphon.
Also Saturday, a suicide bomber demolished a restaurant frequented by Iraqi police north of the capital, killing at least seven people, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The bombing in the city of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, came during lunchtime. Officials at Baqubah General Hospital said five of the dead were Iraqi police officers.
“A suicide attacker wearing an explosive belt blew himself up after he entered the restaurant as a police patrol was having lunch,” Ismael Ibrahim, an Iraqi military commander stationed in the area, told the Times.
“There are many casualties among the police and civilians. The restaurant was completely destroyed, as were a number of neighboring shops.”
Violence also claimed two more American lives – a soldier from the 42nd Military Police Brigade who was killed by an explosive device near Taji, north of Baghdad, and another who died from wounds suffered Friday when a coalition military base near Tikrit was attacked.
Also Saturday, 11 prisoners escaped from Camp Bucca, the largest U.S. detention facility in Iraq. The prisoners had dug a tunnel out of the facility, said 1st Lt. Adam Rondeau, a spokesman for the U.S. military.
Iraqi police caught 10 of the detainees within six hours. One is still missing.
Tensions in the Madain area apparently had been growing for days.
A spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, part of the dominant bloc in the national assembly, said Sunni insurgents burned down a Shiite mosque in Madain on Thursday.
Haitham Husseini said the insurgents returned on Friday and took 40 to 60 people hostage.
Saturday’s events began when gunmen took nine men and a woman captive on the town’s outskirts, according to an Interior Ministry official who refused to be identified. The kidnap victims, all members of the same Shiite tribe, had been traveling on a bus to Baghdad from the Shiite holy city of Kut.
The official said the gunmen raped the woman in front of her tribesmen, then sent her to Madain with a warning for all Shiites to leave. He also said her family in Baghdad, after learning of her situation, kidnapped members of the prominent Dulaimi tribe of Sunnis in retaliation.
“The situation is very hot, and it will cause sectarian strife,” the official said.
Confusion surrounded the events, however. While state-owned Iraqiya TV said insurgents were threatening to kill 150 hostages in 24 hours, a spokesman for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Madain told Al-Jazeera television that nothing had happened.
“It’s all false news,” Sheik Abdul Hadi al Daraji said. “These are all lies and attempts to create tension. They’re trying to ruin the reputation of the resistance.”
But Husseini of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said residents were fleeing.
“We heard a lot of families left that place,” he said. “They saw them with their luggage getting out of the city.”
Husseini blamed supporters of Osama bin Laden and Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, whose organization is responsible for hundreds of deaths in attacks in Iraq.
“Those responsible were the infidels and the Wahhabis,” he said, referring to a fundamentalist strain of Islam associated with bin Laden, whose Sunni followers are openly hostile to Shiites.
A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite cleric, echoed Husseini’s charges. Sheik Ali Bashir al-Najafi said 20 families had left Madain in the wake of the insurgent demands.
There appeared to be no open fighting in Madain, however. A cosmetics store owner who lives near a Shiite shrine, reached by phone, said he could see no signs of violence. “Everything is calm,” said Mohamed Abd, stepping outside his store to survey the scene at about noon.
The country’s recently named Sunni vice president, Ghazi al-Yawer, called the situation “difficult” in an interview with Al-Jazeera, but predicted it would be resolved soon.
“We beseech everyone for the sake of the Iraqi people and this country to incline toward peace,” he said.
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