The Sunnis are believed to form the backbone of the insurgency.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi security forces surrounded a central Iraqi village early today after Sunni militants took as many as 100 Shiite Muslims hostage and threatened to kill the captives if other Shiites did not leave town. The explosive sectarian standoff played out, as 17 people -- including an American soldier -- were killed in insurgent attacks elsewhere in Iraq.
Late Saturday, insurgents fired mortar rounds at a U.S. Marine base near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, the military said, adding that there were no American casualties. Residents said dozens of armed fighters moved through the city after dark. They reported loud explosions when the militants tried to force their way into Camp Blue Diamond and said there were casualties among the attackers.
In the southeast, 11 Iraqi detainees angry at their treatment by American jailers broke out of Camp Bucca, the American military's largest detention center, by cutting through a fence. Ten were recaptured, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict exploded Thursday in Madain, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, when Sunni militants attacked the town mosque with explosives. National Security Minister Qassem Dawoud said government security forces had the town surrounded and were conducting raids to root out the hostage-takers. He said U.S.-led forces were backing the operation, but the U.S. military said it had no information on the matter.
Haitham Husseini, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite group, said the Madain mosque had been badly damaged in the Thursday attack.
Husseini said about 100 masked militants drove through Madain, capturing Shiite youngsters and old men. He and government officials said between 35 to 100 people were taken hostage.
A resident reached by telephone said the militants had returned early Saturday, shouting through loudspeakers that all Shiites must leave or the hostages would be killed. Later, the resident said, the town appeared calm and there was no sign of insurgents. Other residents said no hostages had been taken. The conflicting accounts could not be reconciled.
Dawoud told al-Arabia television that insurgents loyal to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the feared group Al-Qaida in Iraq, were operating throughout the area.
The insurgents repeatedly have sparred with Iraq's security forces in Madain and its outlying districts, which are populated by a near-equal mix of Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million population, but were dominant under Saddam Hussein.
The death of an American soldier from the 42nd Military Police Brigade was one of two reported Saturday. The military police officer died after his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb near Taji, north of Baghdad. A second soldier died Saturday of wounds sustained a day earlier in an attack on a base near Tikrit, 80 miles north of the capital.
As of Saturday, at least 1,550 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.