BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi security forces raided a town in central Iraq on Sunday where Sunni militants were holding dozens of Shiite Muslims hostage and threatening to kill them unless all Shiites left the area, an Iraqi official said.
Elsewhere, three American soldiers were killed and seven service members wounded overnight when insurgents fired mortar rounds at a U.S. Marine base near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Sunday.
Residents said dozens of armed militants had tried to force their way into Camp Blue Diamond and that some suffered casualties. The attackers fled into a nearby mosque and were pursued by Iraqi security forces, but no insurgents were found there, the U.S. military said.
The assault raised to 24 the number of people who died in Iraq on Saturday.
They included an American soldier whose convoy was hit by a roadside bomb near Taji, north of Baghdad; a bomb in a crowded restaurant in Baqouba, northeast of the capital, that killed at least nine Iraqis; and an insurgent attack on a home in Haditha, west of Baghdad, that killed a police chief and three of his relatives, officials said.
On Sunday, a roadside bomb targeting an American military convoy in Al-Barjiya village in northern Iraq, killed three Iraqi civilians and injured two others, said Col. Wathiq Ali of the Mosul police. No U.S. casualties were immediately reported.
In Madain, where the Sunni-Shiite hostage situation was occurring, security forces that had surrounded the town began raiding sites Saturday in search of the hostages, said Qassim Dawoud, the minister in charge of national security.
Early Sunday, Iraqi forces freed about 15 Shiite families, said Haidar Khayon, an official at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad. He said five hostage-takers were captured in a skirmish with light gunfire, but no casualties were reported. It was not immediately clear how many hostages were still being held.
Security forces continued to comb through the town of about 1,000 families, which is located 14 miles southeast of Baghdad, Khayon said.
Other retaliatory kidnappings by Sunni and Shiite groups have occurred in the violent area, but the abductions appeared to be the first attempt by militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to forcibly evacuate a town along sectarian lines.
In Baghdad, lawmakers in Iraq’s new parliament met Sunday morning and agreed that a five-member committee, including Dawoud, will look into the crisis and make recommendations. In a speech to the assembly, Dawoud said: “We have to acknowledge the truth that there is an attempt to draw the country into a sectarian war.”
A new Cabinet had been expected to be announced in parliament Sunday. But Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite leader, said Saturday he needed more time to discuss the allocation of portfolios, including how to bring in members of the Sunni minority, many of whom boycotted Iraq’s Jan. 30 national elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls.
A meeting of Iraq’s neighbors, which had been expected to be held after the new government was announced, was postponed from Monday at al-Jaafari’s request, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced.
Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million population, but were dominant under Saddam Hussein. Since coalition forces drove him from power two years ago, the disempowered Sunnis are believed to form the backbone of the ongoing insurgency.
The insurgents repeatedly have sparred with Iraq’s security forces in Madain and its outlying districts, which are populated by a near-equal mix of Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, Jouwad al-Maliky, a member of parliament’s Shiite alliance, sharply criticized the hostage taking in Madain.
“This area witnessed terrorist acts that cannot be believed. These terrorists and infidels tried to evict residents and kidnapped many people” in Madain, he said. Al-Maliky praised Iraqi security forces for racing to the town, but he said the legislators must form a Cabinet quickly so it can handle the Madain crisis properly.
Shiite legislator Shirwan Al-Waili told parliament the kidnappers must be stopped.
“There are people who want the Iraqi project to fail. What is going on in Madain is targeting the unity of the Iraqi people. Some kidnapped families could be killed if all Shiites don’t leave the village. We can’t just denounce this. We must intervene,” he said.
Legislator Jala Aldin al-Saghir, a senior Shiite cleric, said: “We have warned repeatedly that sectarian cleansing was going in this area, but the security forces took no action.”
The crisis in Madain began Thursday when Sunni militants attacked a Shiite mosque with explosives. Haitham Husseini, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s largest Shiite group, said the mosque was badly damaged. The next day, Husseini said about 100 masked militants drove through Madain, capturing Shiites. Shiite leaders and government officials estimated 35 to 100 people were taken hostage.