April 18, 2005
MADAIN, Iraq - Hundreds of Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. military, swept into a town south of Baghdad at dawn Monday but found no hostages, despite reports that Sunni militants had kidnapped as many as 100 Shiites there.
Residents and Sunni clerics said the reports had been grossly exaggerated by government officials bent on re-establishing control in the lawless region the U.S. military has called the "Triangle of Death" because it has become a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency.
Meanwhile, Iraq's most powerful Shiite bloc wants former leader Saddam Hussein put to death if he is convicted of war crimes by a special tribunal, and if the interim president won't sign the execution order, he should resign, an alliance spokesman told The Associated Press on Monday.
"We feel he is a criminal. He is the No. 1 criminal in the world. He is a murderer," said Ali al-Dabagh, a lawmaker from the Shiite clergy-led United Iraq Alliance. "He deserves a trial, and he should be subjected to the law and the court. Whatever the decision, everyone should follow it, even if the president says he cannot sign it."
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Monday that he likely would abstain from signing an execution order because of his opposition to the death penalty.
Talabani also told the BBC that the ongoing insurgency could be halted if Iraq used militias such as those consisting of Kurds and Shiite Muslims.
"In my opinion, Iraqi forces, the popular forces and government forces, are now ready to end the insurgency and end this terrorism," he told the BBC.
The government has rejected offers by the Kurds to use tens of thousands of Peshmerga guerrillas and by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to use its Badr brigade of fighters, the BBC reported.
In Madain, an AP photographer joined hundreds of police who entered the town, deploying on rooftops and moving in vehicles and on foot. There was no resistance and no captives were found in the agricultural town of about 1,000 families, evenly divided between Shiites and Sunnis.
National Security Minister Qassim Dawoud warned Sunday of attempts to draw the country into sectarian war. On Monday, he pledged to "chase down terror everywhere."
He said Iraqi forces had discovered rooms full of mines, ammunition and car-bomb-making equipment in Madain. Six completed car bombs were found and were being defused, he said. A number of suspected insurgents also were detained.
Interior Ministry officials said six Iraqi police and special forces battalions, each of which usually includes about 300 troops, took part in the Madain operation.
Fewer than 200 American troops were providing air cover, medical evacuation services and a quick reaction force, which would only be sent in if needed, the U.S. military said.
Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, said it was the first time Iraqi forces had conducted an operation of this scale on their own, with American troops only standing by for support.
Streets were largely deserted as the troops moved in early Monday, searching farms and orchards. At one farm, they found stolen cars, bomb-making materials, training equipment and instructions on how to use weapons, the AP photographer said.
Shiite leaders and government officials initially claimed Sunni militants captured up to 100 Shiites in and around Madain on Friday and were threatening to kill them unless all Shiites left the area. Iraqi police and military circled the town and raided suspected militant hideouts over the weekend.
One Defense Ministry official claimed about 15 Shiite families were freed and five-hostage takers captured in a skirmish with light gunfire Sunday. By Monday, however, Iraqi officials had produced no hostages and some were saying the number taken had been exaggerated.
Residents told Associated Press Television News over the weekend they had seen no evidence of any hostages.
Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Sunni clerics, denied to Al-Jazeera television that hostages were taken.
The country's most-feared insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq, also denied there had been any hostage-taking in a statement Sunday on an Islamic Web site known for its militant content. The group, headed by the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said the incident was a fabrication by the "enemies of God" to justify a military attack on Madain aimed at Sunnis.
The confusion over what happened in Madain illustrated how quickly rumors spread in a country of deep ethnic and sectarian divides. Poor telephone communications and the difficulty of traveling between towns because of daily attacks on the roads make it difficult even for government officials to establish facts.
About 150 Shiites from a village near Madain staged a demonstration in Baghdad on Monday, weeping and holding up photos of 18 men and boys they said had been missing from Hurriyah for about 10 days.
On the issue of Saddam's fate, Talabani told the BBC that signing a death warrant would go against his beliefs as a human rights advocate and opponent of capital punishment. He said he might abstain from such a decision and leave it to his two deputies.
Al-Dabagh, a member of the Shiite majority long oppressed under Saddam's rule, said Saddam's execution was not negotiable.
"This is something that cannot be discussed at all. If the court says he's a criminal, we will follow it," al-Dabagh said. "He (Talabani) is now the president, and he should follow the law. If he doesn't want to sign it, then he should resign the presidency."
Saddam and his top lieutenants will be tried before the Iraqi Special Tribunal established in late 2003. The tribunal has given no official dates for starting the trials, although national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said recently that Saddam could be tried by Dec. 31.
The death penalty was reintroduced in Iraq in August 2004 for crimes including murder, endangering national security and drug trafficking. But it is only meant to be a temporary measure in the effort to stamp out the country's insurgency.
Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million population but were dominant under Saddam. Since U.S.-led forces drove him from power two years ago, the disempowered Sunnis are believed to form the backbone of the ongoing insurgency, fearing a loss of influence to majority Shiites.
At least 33 people died over the weekend in insurgent violence, including four U.S. soldiers and a 28-year-old American aid worker identified as Marla Ruzicka, the founder of a group trying to determine the number of civilian casualties in Iraq.
On Monday, two Iraqi policemen were killed and six injured when a roadside bomb exploded as their two patrol vehicles drove through Basra in southern Iraq, police Capt. Alaa Hasan said.