BAGHDAD, (AP) -Hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. troops cordoned off sections of Baghdad’s Sadr City slum early Wednesday and conducted a series of raids in an apparent effort to find five British citizens abducted from a nearby government building the day before, local residents and police said.
British Embassy officials held ongoing talks Wednesday with Iraqi officials to discuss the situation, Britain’s Foreign Office said.
The five men were pulled out of a Finance Ministry office by about 40 heavily armed men in police uniforms in broad daylight Tuesday and driven in a convoy of 19 four-wheel-drive vehicles toward Sadr City, according to the British Foreign office in London and Iraqi officials in the Interior and Finance ministries.
A senior Iraqi official said the radical Shiite Mahdi Army militia was suspected in the attack.
Soon after the abduction, Iraqi forces established a special battalion of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to search for the men, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al Musawi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
“We are conducting search operations near the site where the abduction took place,” he said Wednesday. “Maybe today or in the coming few days, we will find them with the help of secret intelligence.”
Residents of Sadr City said hundreds of American and Iraqi troops sealed off areas of the Shiite neighborhood overnight and carried out a series of arrest raids that lasted until dawn. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals for speaking to the Western media.
The U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday that it had arrested five suspected militants and one suspected leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were believed part of a cell that smuggled weapons in from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the statement said.
The statement did not link the raid to the missing men.
Two civilians were killed and four others injured in crossfire from gunbattles that broke out during one of the raids, police said. The civilians had been sleeping on their roofs in a traditional Iraqi custom to escape the brutal heat, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
U.S. military officials declined to immediately comment on the reported deaths.
A roadside bomb that apparently targeted a passing police patrol in Sadr City, missed and killed one civilian and wounded four others, police said.
Hours after the kidnappings, Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld, confirmed that four of its security workers and one client were kidnapped. All four GardaWorld workers are British citizens, he said, declining to provide more details.
A spokesman for BearingPoint, a McLean, Virginia-based management consulting firm, said one of the company’s employees, apparently the client referred to by Gavaghan, was among those abducted.
The kidnappings, if the work of the Mahdi Army as asserted by several Iraqi officials, could be retaliation for the killing by British forces last week of the militia’s commander in Basra.
Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, who lives in the GardaWorld compound and is involved in efforts to free the men, said it’s “a strong possibility” the kidnapping was a retaliation for the killing.
“We have been in contact with (the Mahdi Army) and are doing our best to try and continue that contact throughout the day,” he told BBC radio.
The raid was reminiscent of an attack by the Shiite militiamen, dressed as Interior Ministry commandos, who stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Nov. 14 and snatched away as many as 200 people. Dozens of those kidnap victims have never been found.
“We are pursuing this case very vigorously, first to release them, secondly to establish the truth of what happened, who was responsible,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told BBC radio on Wednesday.
Zebari said that the government has long believed that its security forces were infiltrated by militia members.
“The number of people who were involved in the operation — to seal off the building, to set roadblocks, to get into the building with such confidence — (means they) must have some connection,” he said.
In other violence Wednesday, several mortar rounds apparently targeting an American military base in the restive city of Fallujah missed their mark and landed instead on a court house and in a residential neighborhood, killing nine civilians and wounding 15 others, according to police and Dr. Anas al-Rawi of Fallujah General Hospital.
A police commander’s convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in the town of Hamzah, south of Baghdad, killing two guards and injuring two others, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals if it was learned he spoke to the media.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that a total of 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash the day before, making May — with at least 113 fatalities so far — the third deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.
The Islamic state of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front group, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter in a statement posted on a militant Web site. The claim could not be independently verified. The military did not say if the helicopter was shot down or had mechanical problems.