Sunni rebels threaten to kill hostages

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The Independent Online

Iraq's increasingly violent sectarian conflict has intensified, with Sunni gunmen threatening to kill dozens of Shia civilians who have been taken hostage in a town near Baghdad.

Iraq's increasingly violent sectarian conflict has intensified, with Sunni gunmen threatening to kill dozens of Shia civilians who have been taken hostage in a town near Baghdad.

The insurgents said they would execute the hostages at Madain, south-east of the capital, unless all Shias left the area.

Qassim Dawoud, the national security minister, said troops had freed 15 families, and arrested five gunmen.

Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, blamed the attempt at ethnic cleansing on "evil powers planning extremist terror'', and promised that Iraqi and US forces would free the captives and find their captors.

But while troops began operations inside the town, rebels struck elsewhere in the country, killing 24 people in 24 hours, including four US soldiers.

The insurgent offensive at Madain began with an attack on a Shia mosque, Al Rassoul Hussaniyah. Gunmen then set up roadblocks and used loudspeakers to order Shias to leave town. According to security forces, the hostage-taking began soon afterwards.

Haitham Husseini, a spokesman for Iraq's largest Shia group, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution said: "There were about 100 masked men riding in cars through the town. They took hostages, mainly men. The families are now contacting us and asking for our help. They fear that those taken away will be killed."

Some Shia clerics and politicians criticised the US authorities and the Iraqi government for failing to foresee the attack.

Jala Aldin al-Saghir, a senior Shia cleric and a member of the legislature, said: "We have repeatedly warned that sectarian cleansing was going on in this area. But neither the police or the Americans have taken notice ... There are people who just want to drive the Shias away."

Madain is a town with a mixed Shia and Sunni population, and has been the scene of attacks by Sunni insurgents. The attack came after the insurgents, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, America's most wanted man in Iraq, said they were joining forces with a number of other rebel groups.

The group, known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq, said the organisation would be known as the Iraqi Mujahedin.

Zarqawi's group claimed the abductions in Madain were "staged'' by "the infidels and their Iraqi allies'' to justify attacks on the Sunni population.

Many Shia residents have already fled Madain following the insurgent threats. Khodeir Ali Abbas, who left with 10 members of his family for the nearby city of Al Kut said: "We had no choice. Gunmen surrounded the town and we were afraid they would kill us if we did not leave. There have been other kidnappings in the past, but not anything as large as this."

Iraqi officials say there has been a rise in attacks on Shias since the elections at the end of January which saw the Shia community gain power for the first time in 100 years. Large numbers of the Sunni electorate stayed away from the polls after warnings to do so by insurgents and because many felt that fair voting could not take place under US and British occupation.

Barham Salih, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: "There are security problems in Madain with tribal implications. But there is no doubt there are people trying to cause sectarian strife."

By late yesterday US and Iraqi soldiers were hoping to have regained about half the town. Unconfirmed reports said a number of civilians, including hostages, had been killed. Among the casualties was Colonel Ammar Al-Dakhily, a senior officer in the Iraqi army's anti-insurgency unit.

Elsewhere three US soldiers were killed and seven injured when insurgents attacked a US base near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. Residents said up to 50 rebels had tried to storm Camp Blue Diamond and fled into a nearby mosque after a gunfight.

Another US soldier was killed by a roadside bomb near Taji, north of the capital, and a bomb killed nine Iraqis in a crowded restaurant in the city of Baquba. In Haditha, west of the capital, gunmen killed the town's police chief and three members of his family in an attack on his house.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's prime minister designate, was due to announce the new cabinet yesterday. But he said he needed more time to discuss the distribution of portfolios, including how to bring the disenfranchised Sunni community into the parliamentary process.