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Sweep finds no hostages

| Tuesday, April 19, 2005

MADAIN, Iraq -- Hundreds of Iraqi security forces launched an operation Monday to root out Sunni insurgents at the tip of Iraq's "Triangle of Death," but found no hostages despite reports that up to 100 Shiites may have been seized.

Iraqi forces fanned through the dusty streets of Madain and took positions on rooftops in the town south of Baghdad, while Sunni leaders dismissed the reports of a hostage crisis as a hoax.

The U.S. military, whose forces only stood by in case they were needed, called the operation in Madain a significant step forward in the training of Iraqi forces, which is key to America's exit strategy in the two-year-old war.

"The city is now under full control," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's office said, adding that 10 suspected insurgents were arrested and large amounts of weapons seized.

In Baghdad, Iraq's most powerful Shiite bloc said it wants ousted leader Saddam Hussein put to death if he is convicted of war crimes. If the interim president won't sign the execution order, he should resign, an alliance spokesman told The Associated Press.

"This is something that cannot be discussed at all," said Ali al-Dabagh, a lawmaker from the Shiite clergy-led United Iraqi Alliance. "We feel he is a criminal. He is the No. 1 criminal in the world. He is a murderer."

Interim President Jalal Talabani was quoted by the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday as saying he likely would abstain from signing any execution order because of his opposition to the death penalty.

"I personally signed a call for ending execution throughout the world, and I'm respecting my signature," Talabani told the BBC. He conceded, however, that he was probably alone in the government in holding this view. No date has been set for Saddam's trial.

Madain is an agricultural town of about 1,000 families, evenly divided between Shiites and Sunnis, located at the northern edge of a region considered to be a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. When an AP photographer joined hundreds of police entering the town yesterday, they met no resistance and found no hostages.

National Security Minister Qassim Dawoud had warned parliament on Sunday of attempts to draw the country into sectarian war. Yesterday, he pledged to "chase down terror everywhere" and said Iraqi forces had discovered mines, ammunition and bomb-making equipment along with six completed car bombs in Madain.

Those detained included four "sword men" believed to have conducted killings for the insurgents, national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said. Cells for holding prisoners were also found, he said.

The country's most-feared insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq, denied any fighters were captured in Madain, saying in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site that only unarmed Sunni civilians were detained.

Six Iraqi police and special forces battalions, each of which typically includes about 300 troops, participated in the operation, the Interior Ministry said.

Fewer than 200 American troops were on standby to help, including providing air cover, the U.S. military said.

Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, said it was the first time that Iraqi forces had conducted an operation of this scale on their own. He called it a "significant step forward" for the Iraqis.

Streets were largely deserted as the troops moved in, searching farms and orchards on the outskirts of town as American helicopters circled overhead. At one farm, they found stolen cars, bomb-making materials, training equipment and instructions on how to use weapons, the AP photographer said. He saw no evidence of hostages.

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