BAGHDAD, April 17 -- Iraqi commandos supported by U.S. military forces have launched an operation to locate and release scores of Shiite Muslim hostages reportedly held and threatened with death by Sunni extremists in a central Iraqi town, according to a senior Iraqi government official.
Qasim Dawood, interim minister of state for national security, said the operation, which began Saturday afternoon, had not yet found any of the hostages said to be held in Madain, a town about 30 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The U.S. military press office in Baghdad said it was seeking information from superiors about the operation but had received no response.
On Saturday, Shiite Muslim religious and political leaders said that the Sunni hostage-takers had ordered Madain's Shiite residents to leave town or they would kill the hostages.
By Sunday morning, Iraqi security forces had surrounded Madain, the Reuters news agency reported, as the standoff continued.
Many details of the situation in Madain remain unclear, including the number of hostages, how and when they were seized, and how long it took Iraqi police and troops to respond.
But in a sign of concern over the incident's effect on rising sectarian tensions, Shiite Muslim political and religious leaders have called for calm. They also called on Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, to address the issue. He did so Sunday with a statement blaming the attacks on Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq and saying it was part of a plan to spread sectarian strife, Reuter reported.
"Unfortunately, evil powers are trying to disturb the peace of our country, stop progress, destroy Iraq, keep killing innocent civilians and planning for the start of ethnic, sectarian and religious division," Allawi said.
Madain has a mixed population of Sunni and Shiite Muslim families. But tensions between the two groups have worsened as the predominantly Sunni insurgency battling U.S. and Iraqi military forces has also targeted Shiite civilians. The latest events in Madain coincide with a rise in violence following two months of relative calm.
The situation in Madain "is very bad -- everyone is scared," said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for the predominantly Shiite Muslim political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, which has asked for an official report to parliament. "We feel this is an important issue and has threatened the political process," he added.
On Saturday, Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he could not confirm the reports of hostage-taking because "communications were so bad today we could not contact our police or the officials" in Madain. He said the ministry had sent police commandos to the farming town.
Dabbagh said residents of Madain told the Alliance that 60 hostages were taken from a Shiite mosque, and that the mosque had been damaged by a bomb. Later, Haitham Al Husseini, a spokesman for Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said that the hostages numbered "around 100 or more" and included women and children.
Husseini said that on Thursday Sunni extremists in Madain blew up the Shiite mosque of al-Rasool al-Adham and that the situation deteriorated further Friday, when "a large number of armed men took some hostages."
Haytham Mohamed Ali, 34, a police captain in Salman Pak, a town near Madain, said he had been in Madain Saturday and that armed, masked men driving three pickups and an Opel used loudspeakers to tell Shiites to leave the town within 48 hours "because we cannot be patient anymore with you being agents and spies for the occupiers." They threatened to kill hostages, Ali said, adding that 13 Shiite families had already fled the town.
Similar reports of the hostage situation reached Najaf, the Shiite Muslim holy city 90 miles south of Baghdad, where about 20 families from Madain have taken refuge, according to Ali Bashir Najafi, the son of and spokesman for Bashir Najafi, a senior Shiite cleric.
Najafi added that the extremists were "not Iraqis. This kind of act is shameful and against the unity of the country, and we stress the right of all Iraqis to live together. The Sunnis and Shiites are brothers."
A man in Najaf who gave his name only as Abu Jassim, or Father of Jassim, said he had left Madain earlier in the week with his seven children because the extremists, who live in the town, had told them, "If you don't leave, we will destroy the whole family."
"We have no power in that place because most of the people are Sunnis and Wahhabis," he added. Wahhabis are a Muslim sect who believe in strict adherence to the Koran's teachings and to an ascetic life. "They have the doctrine of fighting the Iraqi government, the American forces and the Shias because the Shias do not fight them," the man said.
In a report from Madain Saturday, a Reuters correspondent, Waleed Ibrahim, said no U.S. or Iraqi forces could be seen in the town, where masked extremists with AK-47 rifles appeared to move about freely.
In unrelated incidents, two U.S. soldiers died Saturday in separate attacks, the U.S. military said. A member of the 42nd Military Police Brigade died of wounds received Friday morning when a roadside bomb struck a military convoy near Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad. The second soldier died of injuries sustained Friday night when a military base was attacked by indirect fire near Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad.
In Baqubah, nine people were killed Saturday when a bomb exploded inside a restaurant, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. military reported that 10 of the 11 prisoners who escaped early Saturday from Camp Bucca, a U.S. military detention camp near the southeastern port city of Umm Qasr, were recaptured hours later.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Khalid Saffar and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.