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Report of mass kidnappings now doubted

Forces surround Iraqi town, but no sign of conflict

NEAR MADAIN, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces backed by US troops had the town of Madain surrounded yesterday after reports of Sunni militant kidnappings of as many as 100 Shi'ite residents, but there were growing indications that no abductions had occurred.

The town of about 1,000 families, evenly divided between Shi'ites and Sunnis, sits about 15 miles south of the capital in what the US military has called the ''Triangle of Death" because it has become a roiling stronghold of the militant insurgency.

An AP photographer and television cameraman who were in or near the town yesterday said large numbers of Iraqi forces had sealed it off, supported by US forces farther away on the edge of Madain.

The cameraman said he toured the town yesterday morning. People were going about their business; shops were open, and teahouses were full, he said. Residents contacted by telephone also said everything was normal in Madain.

And American military officials said they were unaware of any US role in what had earlier been described as a sectarian standoff in which the Sunni militants were threatening to kill their Shi'ite captives if all the other Shi'ites did not leave the town.

The confusion illustrated how quickly rumors spread in a country of deep ethnic and sectarian divides, where the threat of violence is all too real. Poor telephone communications and the difficulty of traveling from one town to the next because of daily attacks on the roads makes it difficult for even government officials to establish the facts.

National Security Minister Qassim Dawoud warned Parliament yesterday of attempts to draw the country into sectarian war and said three battalions of Iraqi soldiers, police, and US forces were sent to Madain. He said the Iraqi military was planning a large-scale assault on the region by week's end.

A Defense Ministry official, Haidar Khayon, said earlier yesterday that Iraqi forces had raided the town and freed about 15 Shi'ite families and captured five hostage-takers in a skirmish with light gunfire. He said there were no casualties.

Iraq's most influential Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged government officials to resolve the crisis peacefully, his office said.

By the end of the day, however, Iraqi officials had produced no hostages, and Iraqi military officials and police who had given information about the troubles in Madain could not be reached for further details.

Also yesterday, Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Sunni clerics, denied hostages had been taken in Madain. ''This news is completely untrue," he told Al-Jazeera television.

The country's most-feared insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, also denied there had been any hostage-taking, in a statement yesterday on an Islamic website known for its militant content.

Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's estimated population of 26 million, but were dominant under Saddam Hussein. Since US-led forces drove him from power two years ago, the disempowered Sunnis are believed to form the backbone of the ongoing insurgency, angered by their loss of influence to majority Shi'ites.

On Thursday, Shi'ite leaders contended that Sunni militants had seriously damaged a mosque in Madain in a bombing. The next day, the Shi'ites said, masked militants drove through town, capturing Shi'ite residents and threatening to kill them unless all the Shi'ites left.

Shi'ite leaders and government officials had earlier estimated 35 to 100 people were taken hostage, but residents disputed that, with some saying they had seen no evidence of any hostages.

Security forces began raiding sites Saturday in search of those abducted, Dawoud said.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, insurgents killed at least eight Iraqis in attacks aimed at police and other employees of the US-backed interim government.

The US military said three American soldiers had been killed and seven wounded as insurgents fired mortar rounds late Saturday at a Marine base near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

The assault raised to 24 the number of people who died in Iraq on Saturday, including a US civilian, an Iraqi, and another foreigner who died in a Baghdad car bombing.

The US Embassy identified the American civilian as Marla Ruzicka, 28, founder of the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict. That group has conducted a door-to-door survey trying to determine the number of civilian wartime casualties in Iraq.

As of yesterday, at least 1,554 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

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