BAGHDAD - Iraqi soldiers fought their way Sunday into a town where Sunni militants had seized up to 80 hostages and threatened to kill them unless all Shiites left, an interior ministry official said.
“Police forces, backed by coalition forces, entered the town at 9:00 am (05H00 GMT) and encountered severe resistance from the terrorists”, a defense ministry official told AFP.
Government forces have recaptured half of Al-Madain and freed 10 to 15 families held hostage by the gunmen, he said, adding that the clashes were continuing.
Earlier an interior ministry official had said that two army battalions had crossed into the town and the neighboring communities of Hafriyah and Al-Wihda at 5:00 am (0100 GMT).
“They have cordoned off the area and started search operations”, he said.
National Security Advisor Qassem Daoud told the Al Arabiya satellite news channel: “Iraqi security forces have the situation under control and are dealing with the hostage takers in a serious manner.”
Iraqi army special forces on Saturday surrounded the town, home to Shiites and Sunnis, in hopes of averting a sectarian bloodbath that could badly damage Iraq’s ethnic and religious ties.
On Saturday afternoon, gunmen blew up the building housing the Husseiniyat al-Rasul al-Adham mosque in Madain, which is built on the ruins of the ancient city of Ctesiphon, said a source at the interior ministry, adding that it was empty at the time.
The same source said events in Madain may be a tit-for-tat kidnapping of Shiites after the abduction of Sunnis from the powerful Dulaimi tribe, who have a presence in the area.
A spokesman for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, Abdul Hadi al-Darraji also suggested the incident may be part of a settling of scores among some families in the community.
Many residents have already fled the town, 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Baghdad, with some heading further south to predominantly Shiite Kut.
The kidnapping drama began on on Friday when armed men entered the town in pick-up trucks. They then threatened in messages from loudspeakers to kill their hostages unless Shiites left the town.
The road linking Baghdad with Kut, 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the south, is among the most dangerous in the country where several beheaded bodies have surfaced in recent months.
The area around Madain and neighbouring Salman Pak is home to several Sunni Arab tribes who follow the radical Wahabi brand of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia and recent reports suggested that Shiites have set up vigilante groups for protection.
Daoud’s fellow National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie blamed the rising wave of Islamic extremism around Madain on former dictator Saddam Hussein’s policy of settling Sunni extremists in the stretch of towns just south of Baghdad after the 1991 Shiite uprising against the old regime.
“Saddam started a policy of “colonies’ whereby he allowed and encouraged some of the Sunni extremists to live at the southern Baghdad borders …basically to put a human barrier between Baghdad and the south and stop any future uprising in the south from reaching Baghdad.”
Rubaie urged Iraq’s 15-million-strong Shiite majority not to carry out reprisals against the country’s Sunni community, which is blamed for fueling Iraq’s deadly insurgency.
“We have called for people not to take the law into their own hands,” Rubaie said.
“In killing innocent Sunnis, this is what the extremist Salafists want. They want to draw the Shiites into a sectarian conflict. This is a fatal mistake.” The latest incident in Madain came as the Shiites, who won control of parliament in January, have been trying to woo the Sunnis, who largely skipped January 30 elections, to join the political process