U.S. Forces Free Al-Qaeda in Iraq Captives

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 28, 2007

BAGHDAD, May 27 -- U.S. forces raided an al-Qaeda in Iraq hide-out northeast of Baghdad on Sunday and rescued 41 people who had been kidnapped by the insurgent group, some as long as four months ago, a U.S. military spokesman said.

Some of the captives had broken bones and bore signs of torture, said Col. Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq. It was apparently the largest number of people ever rescued from al-Qaeda, Boylan said.

"This is typical of al-Qaeda," he said. "This is how they intimidate towns and villages -- they take people and hold them."

Details of the operation were sketchy Sunday night.

Boylan said the raid occurred in Diyala province, a mixed Sunni Arab and Shiite region northeast of Baghdad that has been the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence in Iraq. About 3,000 additional U.S. forces have been sent to the province in recent weeks to help quell the fighting.

Diyala has become a new stronghold for al-Qaeda since the group was put on the defensive in neighboring Anbar province, where tribal leaders have begun working with U.S. and Iraqi forces to root out the extremist group. U.S. forces also raided an al-Qaeda detention facility in Anbar last week, freeing 17 people, including a 13-year-old boy who had been tortured.

It was unclear whether any fighting occurred during Sunday's operation, which was based on a tip from an Iraqi citizen, or whether any suspects were apprehended, Boylan said. Details about the freed captives, including their ages, genders and religious affiliations, were still being collected, he said.

It was unknown whether the victims had been held for ransom, Boylan said.

"The first priority is to get these people medical care and to get them to safety," he said. "We're still going through the hide-out."

Meanwhile, the U.S. military staged a raid Sunday in Sadr City -- the eastern Baghdad slum and stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the militia of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- and detained a man suspected of belonging to a secret "terrorist network" with ties to Iran, the U.S. military said in a statement.

The raid was one of several recent operations targeting a network that U.S. officials say has smuggled weapons and munitions from Iran into Iraq and taken Iraqis to Iran for terrorist training. After detaining a suspect in a similar raid on Saturday, U.S. troops detected an insurgent ambush as they were preparing to withdraw from the neighborhood and called in air support, which fired on several cars, killing at least five people, officials said. Mahdi Army sources said the cars were waiting in a line for gasoline and that all the dead were civilians.

The raids came as the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq prepared to meet Monday in the first formal and public bilateral meeting between the two nations since 1979. U.S. officials are expected to lay out at least some of their evidence supporting allegations that Iran is fomenting insurgent violence in Iraq. The sides are meeting to discuss ways of restoring stability and increasing security in this war-torn and fractured country.

Sadr, who recently appeared in public for the first time in about four months, met with leaders from his political group in the holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, on Sunday to discuss the country's political and security situation, according to his senior aide, Salah al-Obeidi. He told reporters after the meeting that Sadr continues to blame "the occupation for the crisis that the country suffers from, and there will be no solution but the withdrawal of the occupation."

Asked about President Bush's recent statement that he hoped Sadr would play a positive role in Iraq, Obeidi said it was the White House that needed "to be positive, and to make an honest decision of withdrawing from this country so there will be a chance to rebuild it again."

Also Sunday, the U.S. military reported that two American soldiers were killed and six wounded Saturday in two attacks in Baghdad and Tikrit, 110 miles north of the capital. The deaths bring to at least 103 the number of U.S. service members killed in May, making it one of the deadliest months of the four-year war.

Washington Post staff in Najaf contributed to this report.

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