BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi soldiers raided Baghdad’s Sadr City slum on Wednesday, searching for five kidnapped Britons who Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said had probably been seized by a Shi’ite Muslim militia.
In Washington, U.S. officials said President George W. Bush held a video conference with Iraqi leaders and would like to see a lengthy U.S. troop presence in Iraq like the one in South Korea to provide stability but not in a frontline combat role.
Bush urged the Iraqi leaders to make progress toward an oil revenue-sharing plan and political reforms to help prevent a slide into all-out civil war between the Shi’ite majority and Sunni Arabs, once-dominant under Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. and Iraqi troops raided Sadr City, a stronghold of the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, after dozens of gunmen kidnapped a British computer expert and four British bodyguards from a government building on Tuesday.
An Iraqi government official said the kidnappings could have been retaliation for the killing of the top commander of the militia in the southern city of Basra by British-backed Iraqi troops last week.
“It may be the Mehdi Army because the location of the (kidnapping) is in their theatre of operations,” said Zebari.
“Their safety is our top priority ... I don’t think they will (kill) them. They are using them for bargaining, but they have not contacted anybody yet.”
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said British officials were working with Iraqi authorities to find out how the Britons were abducted and to secure their swift release.
An Interior Ministry spokesman dismissed suggestions the kidnappers, dressed in police commando uniforms and driving official vehicles, were a renegade unit from his ministry.
Interior Ministry forces are known to be heavily infiltrated by Shi’ite militias, including the Mehdi Army, and have often been accused of kidnappings and sectarian killings.
But a top official in Sadr’s political movement, Abdul Mahdi al-Mutiri, said the scale and organisation of Tuesday’s operation was beyond the Mehdi Army’s capabilities.
A government employee who witnessed the kidnappings gave new details of the incident and told how two other Westerners had narrowly escaped being abducted by the gunmen at a Finance Ministry building in Palestine Street.
The ministry identified the kidnapped British computer expert as an employee of BearingPoint, a U.S.-based consulting firm that has worked in Iraq since 2003.
The kidnappings were a challenge to a major security crackdown in the capital by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The troops are trying to stabilise Baghdad, epicentre of sectarian violence, but bombings, shootings and kidnappings continue.
Sadr City residents told of being woken in the early hours of Wednesday as U.S. armoured vehicles smashed their way into at least seven houses, demolishing walls to make way for troops who stormed in behind them.
“They started beating us and telling us to bring out the four Britons ... We said we didn’t have them, but they tied our hands outside and put the women together in one room,” said Abu Ali.
Police said the raids sparked fighting in which two people were killed.
In Tuesday’s kidnapping, dozens of gunmen sealed off streets round the building, where a group of employees were receiving a lecture from a Western expert on electronic contracts in a computer centre on the ground floor, police said.
Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress have been pressing Bush to agree to a timetable for pulling troops from Iraq, an idea firmly opposed by the president.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush would like to see a U.S. role in Iraq ultimately similar to that in South Korea in which “you get to a point in the future where you want it to be a purely support model”.
The United States has had thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea to guard against a North Korean invasion for 50 years.
“You’ve had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and therefore the United States is there as a force of stability,” Snow told reporters.
Bush held the video conference with Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul al-Mahdi.
“It’s about the need to bring everybody together,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Kate Kelland in London