British ground forces and U.S. military helicopters fought with gunmen Friday in southern Iraq where four American security contractors and their Austrian co-worker were abducted in a convoy hijacking.
As the coalition forces searched the area around the border city of Safwan for the Crescent Security Group employees, confusion grew about what had happened to the captives.
A top Iraqi police official in Basra said none of the five kidnapped security company employees had been freed. He claimed the provincial governor, who announced the release of two of the hostages, had confused separate incidents in the region involving private security forces.
Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi said the five kidnap victims — four Americans and an Austrian taken when their convoy was hijacked Thursday near the Kuwait border — still were in the hands of what he called a criminal gang. He said the kidnappers had demanded a ransom but would not elaborate.
Al-Moussawi said police believed the five were being held in the Safwan region along with trucks from the convoy.
Only hours earlier, Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili said two of the kidnap victims had been freed and one of the five was found dead near Safwan. He gave no nationalities.
The company contracting the workers said that nine others from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines were released by the captors.
Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces who were fighting gunmen in the area where the kidnapping took place, said in a telephone interview from Basra that the hijacking occurred at 1 p.m. Thursday in Safwan, an Iraqi city near the Kuwait border. He said the convoy was coming from Kuwait.
At dawn Friday, British ground forces and helicopters searched an area of Safwan for gunmen who had attacked coalition forces in the past few days when about 10 of them opened fire from farm buildings, Dunlop said. The British and U.S. forces returned fire, Dunlop said.
As violence in Iraq continued to spiral out of control, a crisis was brewing for Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
The influential Association of Muslim Scholars called on Sunni politicians to quit Iraq’s government and parliament, angered by the government’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for the association’s leader, Harith al-Dhari.
Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the association, said the arrest warrant was political cover for “the acts of the government’s security agencies that kill dozens of Iraqis every day.”
Al-Kubaisi called for “political groups to withdraw from parliament and the government, which has proven that it is not a national government.”
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi also condemned the arrest warrant saying “it is destructive to the national reconciliation plan.” In a statement, al-Hashimi urged the government to cancel the warrant immediately.
Al-Dhari, who is in Jordan, said the arrest warrant was illegal and “proof of the failure and the confusion of the Iraqi government.”
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani issued the warrant on Thursday night, declaring on state television that al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence. Afterward, however, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, also a Shiite, sought to minimize it as an “investigation warrant.” The spokesman said it is up to judicial authorities to issue an arrest warrant.
And Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the Cabinet and the president’s office had no knowledge about the arrest warrant. He called for an urgent meeting of political leaders to review the government’s work.
The warrant is seen as certain to inflame Iraq’s raging sectarian violence. The interior minister is a Shiite, while al-Dhari is a Sunni extremist who recently mocked a government offer of reconciliation in return for abandoning the insurgency.
Al-Dhari, who has been outside Iraq for months, said: “The timing of the warrant came when the Iraqi government felt embarrassed by its failure in security.”
Bush: 'We'll succeed unless we quit'
President Bush, speaking Friday in Asia, promised to stand with the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said. “The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it.”
Control of the area where the kidnapping took place had been formally handed to the Iraqi government from British and Italian forces.
The body of the Austrian was taken to a morgue in the city of Basra, and the wounded American was taken there so he could be transferred to a British military hospital, the Basra officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of concern for his own security.
The Austrian and American had been found about 20 miles north of Safwan, where the convoy hijacking took place. Throughout Iraq, similar convoys come under attack daily but they have not resulted in hostage-takings.
In Vienna, Astrid Harz, a spokeswoman for the Austrian foreign ministry, confirmed that a 25-year-old Austrian man had been kidnapped when the Crescent Security Group convoy was hijacked in southern Iraq on Thursday. She could not confirm that he had been killed.
U.S. officials could not immediately be contacted about the report that the American had been wounded.
An Iraqi police officer told The AP that the convoy had been stopped at a checkpoint on Thursday by Iraqi men, some of them wearing police uniforms.
The Crescent Security Group company works mostly in Iraq, and its operations are based in Kuwait. Many of its managers and employees are American.
A U.S. Embassy official, who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information, told The AP the convoy included 43 heavy trucks and six security vehicles.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday that preliminary reports suggested the attacked convoy included about 19 vehicles.
Minnesota man among the kidnap victims
A State Department official informed the family of Paul Reuben, 39, a former police officer from suburban Minneapolis who was working as a security contractor in Iraq, that he was among those captured, his brother, Patrick Reuben, told the Star Tribune newspaper and KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn.
The Iraqi police officer said five gunmen and one British soldier were wounded in the subsequent fighting. But Dunlop could not immediately confirm that. The Iraqi officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Also in the area, Iraqi police shot and wounded a Briton working for a private security company, Dunlop said. The Iraqi Army, however, said the incident involved a British soldier, who was killed.
Italy formally handed over security responsibility of the southern Dhi Qar Province to Iraqi forces in late September, and British troops handed over control of the adjacent southern Muthana province in July.