Thu, Nov 01, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Rescue mission frees captured Iraqi sheiks

AP , BAGHDAD

Haroon al-Mohammedawi, left, the leader of a group of sheiks abducted on Sunday, speaks at a press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, while two other sheiks, Abdel-Majeed Rasheed Naseef, center, and Mudhur al-Azawi, look on.

PHOTO: AP

It had to be done quickly. Rogue Shiite militiamen were holding hostage a group of Sunni and Shiite tribal sheiks who had joined a revolt against al-Qaeda. For the Iraqi government and its US backers, the seven men represented a rare symbol of national unity.

A daring rescue operation secured their freedom.

A meeting on Tuesday between most of the former captives and military officials -- including the Iraqi commander of the rescue operation -- offered the first detailed picture of the tense and fast-moving events: the kidnapping, the slaying of one captive and the seven-hour rescue mission on Monday.

The sheiks, recounting their 30-hour ordeal to a small group of reporters, said they were tortured and humiliated. At least three of the sheiks were visibly bruised. One man's left eye was red and swollen. The two others had bruises on their backs, arms and legs.

But they insisted that they emerged from captivity more determined than ever to continue their fight.

"We already forgot the pain and the wounds from our ordeal," said Haroon al-Mohammedawi, the bearded leader of the group from Khalis, a region in Diyala Province where the terror organization has a heavy presence.

"We pledge to you, the people and leadership of Iraq, that we will stay the course," he said.

militants

Al-Qaeda militants, the sheiks told Iraqi and US commanders, had prevented food rations from reaching them for a year, cut off power supply to their villages and ruined their orchards.

"Al-Qaeda has condemned us to death," said al-Mohammedawi, a Shiite. "But we have a strong uprising and we have volunteers from the age of 14 to 75."

The kidnapping came shortly after the sheiks attended a meeting on Sunday with government officials in Baghdad about battling al-Qaeda and fostering peace between Shiites and Sunnis.

They were traveling back to their homes in Diyala when the attackers intercepted their minibus in the capital's Shiite Shaab neighborhood. One of the seven sheiks resisted the kidnappers. He was shot and killed.

The swift action to rescue the sheiks, launched by about 200 Iraqi soldiers and backed by the US military, reflected the strategic importance of local reconciliation initiatives and the forging of alliances with Sunni tribes in areas where the terror network remains active.

Failure to free the hostages would have dealt a blow to efforts to rally the residents of Diyala, a mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, behind the US and Iraqi forces in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar, the overall Iraqi commander of Baghdad, said the kidnappers belonged to "criminal gangs."

The US military, however, said the culprits were rogue members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia led by anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who in August ordered his fighters to lay down their arms for six months. The military has claimed that such splinter Shiite groups are doing everything possible to stop Iraqis from joining US forces -- even in the fight against the Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Major General Riyadh al-Qusaibi said he and his men had only "foggy" intelligence to work with when they set out to search for the sheiks.

They combed orchards and raided homes in a wide area before they finally located the house where the sheiks were held, he said.

"The area where the house was is not fit for rats to live in," al-Qusaibi said. "The kidnappers' response to our arrival was slow, and the gunfight lasted only minutes."

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