BAGHDAD, April 17 -- Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police commandos, supported by U.S. military helicopters, maintained positions Sunday around the central Iraqi town of Madain, where residents disputed widespread reports that scores of Shiite Muslims were held hostage by Sunni extremists.
In a search of homes on the outskirts of the town, Iraqi police found only three hostages, one of them Kurdish, Police Capt. Ahmad Kamal told a Washington Post special correspondent on the scene. "And they were kidnapped because they were working for Americans, not for the reason they were talking about," he added.
Iraqis walk out of Madain, where word had spread on Saturday that scores of Shiites had been taken hostage.
(Thaier Al-sudani -- Reuters)
Officials in the Iraqi capital, meanwhile, moved quickly to reduce sectarian sentiments sparked by allegations a day earlier of a mass hostage situation in the agricultural town about 18 miles southeast of Baghdad. The alleged hostage-takers reportedly were demanding that Shiite residents move out of town.
Lawmakers set up a five-person committee to look into the matter. Shiite religious and political figures who had related detailed accounts of mass kidnappings on Saturday continued to express concern, but did not repeat those accounts. And interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appealed for calm.
"These wild acts of destroying peaceful houses, kidnapping of innocent people and assaulting properties and families will not go without punishment," he said in a statement. "I call for all political and religious entities to ask for calming down and to stop any nervous actions that lead to dangerous consequences."
Dealing with the troubles in Madain has been made more delicate because of the political vacuum in Baghdad. Allawi is running a caretaker government while Iraq's newly nominated prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, forms his cabinet. He is not expected to complete that task for at least another week, a Jafari aide said Sunday.
Qasim Dawood, interim minister of state for national security, told the newly elected National Assembly on Sunday that five battalions of the Iraqi army and police surrounded Madain and that the government was "not sure" about the number of hostages.
"We are also following the situation very closely," he said, adding that "by the end of this week we are going to launch a large-scale operation in the area to uproot terrorists from there."
Dawood added, "We have to acknowledge the truth that there is an attempt to draw the country into a sectarian war."
The situation in Madain, a religiously mixed town of Sunni and Shiite families, remained murky Sunday. A Post special correspondent saw no indications of a hostage situation, though Iraqi police and soldiers searched cars going in and out of the town.
"We don't have any missing persons kidnapped by armed men," said Saeed Abdul Mohsen Maksusi, prayer leader of a Shiite mosque.
"This subject is all lies and it has become a big problem," said Sheik Ali Dulaymi, a Sunni Muslim tribal leader. He said the conflict began with a dispute between two large families, one Sunni and the other Shiite.
The correspondent said many of the town's shops were shuttered and residents were at home because they expected Iraqi forces to move in. Leaflets on the street -- which residents said had been dropped by U.S. helicopters -- warned civilians to stay inside if a military operation started. Seven U.S. Apache helicopters flew low over the town, the correspondent reported.
The U.S. military press office in Baghdad, however, denied that U.S. forces were involved. "[A]t this time we are not aware of any activity in the Salman Pak area involving Coalition Forces," a statement said. Salman Pak is another name for Madain.
A paper pasted to the door of the main mosque in Madain carried a message from the insurgent group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the correspondent said. It charged that the "enemies of God" had fabricated reports about a hostage crisis to justify a military attack targeting Sunnis in Madain.
In another development, the U.S. military announced the deaths of three servicemen Saturday night when a U.S. Marine camp in Ramadi was hit by "indirect fire," which means mortars or rockets.
Seven other servicemen in the 1,000-person Camp Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, were injured. The attackers, who did not attempt to enter the camp, fled into a nearby mosque, but Iraqi security forces did not find them during a search of the mosque, a U.S. military press release said.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government announced the capture more than a month ago of a prominent insurgent leader who also is the nephew of Izzat Ibrahim Douri, one of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's closest advisers. Hashim Hussein Radhan Jabouri was captured March 7 in Salah ad Din province north of Baghdad, the government said in a statement.
Jabouri, an officer in the former Iraqi intelligence service, allegedly got funds from Douri to set up insurgent activities in Iraq, it added. Douri is the King of Clubs in the Pentagon's deck of cards showing the most-wanted figures from the ousted Hussein government. There is a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Khalid Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.