BAGHDAD — Iraqi soldiers Monday rescued eight tribal sheiks who had been taken hostage a day earlier, killing four kidnappers and arresting six others, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
The Sunni and Shiite sheiks are part of a movement in Diyala province to organize their tribes to fight the Sunni insurgent groups in their region, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, that are attacking the U.S. military and the fledgling Iraqi government.
According to initial reports, a group of 10 to 12 sheiks was kidnapped after leaving a meeting with a delegate for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Their vehicles had just passed a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad when they were attacked.
One of the sheiks was reportedly found dead near the site of the kidnapping, and the fate of the remaining hostages was not known.
Even as U.S. and Iraqi security forces have reduced violence in Iraq, Diyala remains one of the trouble spots. The U.S. and Iraqi military launched a major operation in June to take the provincial capital, Baqubah, back from Al Qaeda in Iraq's control. Troops have made strides there recruiting people to join the police force, and have captured and killed dozens of insurgents and seized caches of weapons.
Sheiks have been leading the armed resistance to Al Qaeda in Iraq and have become prime targets of the insurgent group. Last month, insurgents killed Sheik Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, a top U.S. ally and leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, which had driven Al Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar province.
But in the kidnapping case, the U.S. military suspects breakaway Shiite extremist Arkan Hasnawi. Hasnawi was a brigade commander in radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army in northeastern Baghdad, but had splintered off and ignored Sadr's order to cease hostilities for six months, according to the U.S. military.
U.S. military officials cited "intelligence sources" in their suspicion of Hasnawi, but declined requests for interviews to explain how they zeroed in on him. Sadr spokesman Abu Hawra disputed that Hasnawi had been a commander in the Mahdi Army.
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari would not say whether Hasnawi was among the kidnappers who were captured or killed. He said intelligence reports led the Iraqi soldiers, under the leadership of the U.S. Army commander for east Baghdad, to a farmhouse between the east Baghdad Shiite enclave of Sadr City and the Khan Bani Saad farm region in Diyala province.
Askari said Iraqi soldiers were working to free the other sheiks but did not give details.
Families of the sheiks were still waiting for news of their fates Monday after they received word of the rescue. One family member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that he called his father's cellphone, only to have a kidnapper answer the line and utter a vulgar Arabic expression before hanging up.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Usama Redha contributed to this report.