Sent to Rescue Shiite Hostages, Iraqi Troops Find None


New York Times

April 17, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 17 - Anyone in Baghdad this morning could have been forgiven for thinking the country was on the verge of civil war.

Three Iraqi Army battalions had surrounded the town of Madaen, just south of the capital, where Sunni kidnappers were said to be threatening to kill hundreds of Shiite hostages unless all Shiites left the town. As the national assembly met, Iraq's top political figures warned of a grave sectarian crisis. Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric issued a plea for restraint. Even the outgoing prime minister released a statement decrying the "savage, filthy, and dirty atrocities" in Madaen.

But as the army battalions arrived in Madaen, they saw streets full of people calmly sipping tea in cafés and going about their business. There were no armed Sunni mobs, no cowering Shiite victims. After hours of careful searches, the soldiers assisted by air surveillance found no evidence of any kidnappings or refugees at all.

By this afternoon, Iraqi army officials were reporting that the crisis in Madaen, which had been narrated in a stream of breathless television reports and news agency stories, was nothing but a tissue of rumors and politically motivated accusations.

The hysteria over Madaen was one vivid illustration of the way Iraq's daily violence and sectarian tension, which are real enough, can be easily twisted into fantasy here. In a country where phones are unreliable and roads between cities often blocked, facts can give way to a fast-running engine of rumor. And most people have good reason to believe the worst.

The wild rumors are also an index of Iraq's current political turmoil. Some of the early reports about the Madaen kidnappings on Friday night came from Shiite political figures who are bitterly angry at the outgoing government of Dr. Ayad Allawi. In the past, some Shiites have been quick to emphasize any hints that his government may be losing control.

The Shiites' anger at Dr. Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Baathist, stems in part from his decision to rehire a number of other former Baathists into the government and military. Like the Kurds, Iraqi's Shiites were brutally oppressed by Saddam Hussein's Baathist government.

Dr. Allawi handed in his resignation as prime minister last week, but the new Shiite-led coalition government has yet to take power, and many of its members are impatient.

"We are in a political vacuum," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for Iraq's outgoing interior minister. "Politicians will be politicians, but I blame them for not forming a government quickly enough."

The rumors in Madaen did not grow from nothing. A group of traveling Shiites was kidnapped last week near the town, 10 miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said today. That generated a retaliatory kidnapping of a group of Sunnis by Shiites a few days later.

Sunni Arabs and Shiites have clashed often in the area south of Baghdad, particularly the lawless zone known as the Triangle of Death, which is northeast of Madaen.

On Friday night, Interior Ministry officials said the police in Madaen were reporting that a group of Sunnis with roots in Anbar Province, where sectarian tensions have risen lately, had kidnapped three Shiites and were threatening to kill them unless all Shiites agreed to leave the town.

The story, with its overtones of Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing, quickly grew. On Saturday Iraqiya television reported that 150 hostages had been taken. Western news agencies began reporting that Shiites were fleeing Madaen and seeking refuge to the south, and that Iraqi army units were preparing to sweep into the town.

Residents in the town played down the reports on Saturday. But a bomb exploded in a Shiite mosque in Madain, fanning the notion of a sectarian conflict. No one was injured in the blast, which left the mosque in ruins.

By this morning, the story had become the first agenda at the week's first national assembly meeting. National Security Minister Qasem Dawood briefed the assembly members on the crisis and the military's plan to encircle and pacify the town.

"There is an attempt to drag this country into civil war," he said.

A Shiite assembly member, Jalal Adin al-Saghir, told the gathered members of riots, and lashed out angrily at Dr. Allawi's government for not protecting the people. Another influential member told of mines that had been placed around Madaen by terrorists, and spoke of the events there as "a kind of ethnic purge."

Not to be outdone, Dr. Allawi issued his own comment later in the day. "These wild acts of destroying peaceful homes, kidnapping innocent people, and assaulting properties and families will not go without punishment," he said in a statement about the events in Madaen.

Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made phone calls to government officials and urged them to solve the crisis in Madaen peacefully.

Before long, the reactions to the crisis took on a sectarian coloring of their own. This afternoon a prominent group of hard-line Sunni clerics held a news conference and issued a statement, saying the Madaen crisis was a fabrication to stoke animosity against Sunnis.

Even Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who is Iraq's most wanted man, weighed in. His network, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, issued a statement on Islamist Web sites saying the kidnappings were a fabrication by Iraqi and American authorities. The statement went on to say it was the Iraqi army and police who rounded up people in Madaen, and the victims were Sunnis, not Shiites.

In the end, the Iraqi army officers who searched Madaen delivered their own, more balanced verdict.

"This issue was exaggerated for political reasons related to the formation of the new government," said Maj. Gen. Mudhir Mola Abboud of the Iraqi army. "We entered the city and did not find any hostages."