BAGHDAD — Hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. troops cordoned off sections of Baghdad’s Sadr City slum Wednesday and conducted raids in an apparent effort to find five British citizens who Iraqi officials believed were abducted by the Shiite Mahdi Army militia.
British Embassy officials held ongoing talks with Iraqi officials about the situation, Britain’s Foreign Office said, and Britain’s COBRA crisis committee met for a second day.
If the work of the Mahdi Army, the kidnappings could be retaliation for the killing by British forces last week of the militia’s commander in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, said it’s “a possibility” the kidnapping was a response to the killing.
“We’re working very hard with various religious leaders to try to work at this issue, but it’s not easy. It’s very, very difficult,” he told The Associated Press about efforts to free the men.
The five men were pulled out of a Finance Ministry office by about 40 heavily armed men in police uniforms in broad daylight Tuesday and driven in a convoy of 19 four-wheel-drive vehicles toward Sadr City, according to Iraqi officials in the Interior and Finance ministries.
Al-Sadr connection weighed
A top Interior Ministry official, who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the authorities were working on the assumption the five were abducted by the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr because the area they were taken from is controlled by the militia.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said officials were doing all they could to ensure the men were released quickly.
“This is clearly a very distressing time for all concerned,” she said upon arriving at a Group of Eight meeting in Potsdam, Germany.
“It is not helpful at this stage to speculate on what might have happened,” she said. “We are working closely with the Iraqi authorities to establish the facts and doing all we can to secure their swift and safe return.”
Also Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman arrived in Baghdad and met with U.S. and Iraqi officials, a British embassy spokesman told NBC News. He did not offer further details about the trip.
Ongoing talks with Iraqi officials
British Embassy officials held ongoing talks Wednesday with Iraqi officials to discuss the situation, Britain’s Foreign Office said.
The U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday that it had arrested five suspected militants and one suspected leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were believed part of a cell that smuggled weapons in from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the statement said.
The statement did not link the raid to the missing men.
Two civilians were killed and four others injured in crossfire from gunbattles that broke out during one of the raids, police said. The civilians had been sleeping on their roofs in a traditional Iraqi custom to escape the brutal heat, police said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
U.S. military officials declined to immediately comment on the reported deaths.
A roadside bomb that apparently targeted a passing police patrol in Sadr City, missed and killed one civilian and wounded four others, police said.
Hours after the kidnappings, Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld, confirmed that four of its security workers and one client were kidnapped. All four GardaWorld workers are British citizens, he said, declining to provide more details.
A spokesman for BearingPoint, a McLean, Va.-based management consulting firm, said one of the company’s employees, apparently the client referred to by Gavaghan, was among those abducted.
In other violence Wednesday, several mortar rounds apparently targeting an American military base in the restive city of Fallujah missed their mark and landed instead on a court house and in a residential neighborhood, killing nine civilians and wounding 15 others, according to police and Dr. Anas al-Rawi of Fallujah General Hospital.
A police commander’s convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in the town of Hamzah, south of Baghdad, killing two guards and injuring two others, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals if it was learned he spoke to the media.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that a total of 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash the day before, making May — with at least 113 fatalities so far — the third deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.
The Islamic state of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter in a statement posted on a militant Web site. The claim could not be independently verified. The military did not say if the helicopter was shot down or had mechanical problems.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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