Iraqi insurgents reportedly seize 60 hostages
Heavily armed Sunnis said to control town near Baghdad

Updated: 6:43 p.m. ET April 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sunni guerrillas took at least 60 people hostage in an Iraqi town near Baghdad on Friday and threatened to kill them unless Shiites left the area, a Shiite official quoted residents as saying.

The hostage-taking and three successive days of bombings that killed at least 34 people suggested insurgents had regrouped after a lull in violence since Jan. 30 elections.

“People from the town called me begging the Iraqi government to save their relatives who are hostages. They told me there are at least 60 hostages,” the official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters in Baghdad.

Insurgents with heavy weapons appeared to have taken control of the mixed Sunni and Shiite town of Madaen, just south of Baghdad, and no police or government forces were in sight, said the official.

“The residents told me the insurgents were wandering the streets in cars and warning people on loudspeakers that if Shiites want the hostages to be safe they must leave town,” he said.

Guerrillas have taken control of cities such as Fallujah before, but seizing many hostages in a town so close to the capital will pile pressure on Iraq’s new leaders to deliver the improved security Iraqis have expected since the elections.

New government elusive; violence continues
Iraq has yet to form a full government 11 weeks after the polls, with politicians trying to maneuver around sectarian minefields amid huge political changes after decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.

The majority Shiites, long oppressed under Saddam, have gained power along with Kurds while the Sunni minority has watched vast privileges from past years vanish.

Iraqi officials say they want Sunnis to play a role in the new government, hoping it would help end the insurgency, but there have been no tangible signs of this happening.

Bombs targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least four people on Friday.

A roadside bomb near the central city of Samarra killed two Iraqi soldiers, an army source said.

A car bomb designed to hit a U.S. military convoy passing through Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood killed at least one person and wounded five, including a U.S. soldier, police and the U.S. military said.

A group that calls itself al-Qaida in Iraq said one of its suicide bombers drove his vehicle into a convoy of American “cross worshippers” in Mansour and inflicted casualties.

“They are still gathering their dead and wounded,” the group said in a statement posted on a Web site used by Islamists.

Elsewhere in the capital, a bomb targeting the Iraqi National Guard killed a civilian and wounded three, police said.

New wave of attacks
The attacks were small-scale by Iraq’s standards but reinforced concerns over a resurgence in bloodshed that has been so common over the past two years and which seemed to have subsided since the elections.

On Wednesday and Thursday, at least 10 bomb blasts in Iraq killed more than 30 people, including 15 in twin suicide attacks in central Baghdad.

A U.S. Marine was killed on Thursday by small arms fire in Ramadi, a rebellious city west of Baghdad.

Since the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq, more than 1,540 U.S. troops have died.

Iraqis had hoped their leaders would quickly form a government after the polls and take on the daunting challenge of ending suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.

Iraq has appointed a president and prime minister but key interior, oil and defense ministers have yet to be chosen and some people fear the political vacuum will play into the hands of the insurgents.

Insurgency changes, but doesn't go away
The scene in Mansour was typical of the violence Iraqi leaders had hoped would diminish after millions of people defied suicide bombers to vote in the national assembly elections.

Bodies lay in the street. Several cars were burned. Smoke and flames rose near a restaurant, witnesses said.

U.S. commanders say the number of insurgent attacks has dropped by about a fifth since the elections, but the scale and sophistication of militant operations seems to have increased.

Earlier this month, a group of 60 insurgents launched an assault on the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, detonating two car bombs and firing mortars and rockets. U.S. forces repelled the attack after hours of fighting.

At the same time high-profile kidnappings have resumed. An American seized this week from a reconstruction project near the capital was shown in a video broadcast by Al Jazeera television on Wednesday.

The U.S. military hopes that the faster it trains Iraqi security forces, the sooner it will be able to start withdrawing some of the 140,000 U.S. troops in the country.

As well as U.S. forces, there are about 20,000 other foreign troops serving in the U.S.-led coalition, but more and more of them are pulling out.

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