BAGHDAD -- US and Iraqi forces yesterday rescued seven Sunni Arab men seized by suspected Shi'ite militiamen near Baghdad, part of a campaign to suppress sectarian death squads responsible for hundreds of deaths this year.
The kidnapping was the latest in a wave that is plaguing the country. Many of the abductions are part of the sectarian warfare plaguing the Iraqi capital, home to large communities of Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds.
Iraqi police said the trouble started when dozens of gunmen, some of them wearing military uniforms, raided two Sunni villages near Khan Bani Saad, 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, and abducted 10 young men.
Village leaders and clerics alerted police and US soldiers, who rushed to the scene, clashed with the gunmen, and rescued seven of the hostages, police said. Three others were missing and presumed taken away by gunmen, police said.
US troops killed at least one kidnapper and wounded another, said Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Fisher, commander of the First Battalion, 68th Armor. Some of the hostages had been severely beaten, he told Associated Press TV News.
More than 30 people were taken into custody, Iraqi police said, and interrogators were trying to determine their identities. Some gunmen told police they belong to the militia loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and had come from Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.
Kidnappings are believed to have risen steadily since the US-led invasion of 2003, although police believe few are reported. A study by the Brookings Institution estimated that between 30 and 40 Iraqis were kidnapped per day in the Baghdad area alone during March, compared with two a day in the capital in January 2004.
Fisher said the incident may have been ''tribal in nature." He did not elaborate, but tensions have been running high between Shi'ite and Sunni communities in religiously mixed Diyala Province.
With the rise in sectarian tensions, much of the violence has shifted from Sunni insurgent strongholds such as Anbar Province to Baghdad and other areas with a mixed population.
The shift has heavily affected civilians, many of whom have been targeted simply because of their religious affiliation. According to the Health Ministry, 952 people were killed nationwide last month in ''terrorist" violence, among them 686 civilians.
By comparison, ministry figures showed that 548 civilians were killed nationwide in January, 545 in February and 769 in March.
Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman for the US command, said attacks against civilians were up by about 80 percent over the level of six months ago. He attributed the increase to Al Qaeda in Iraq and its Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who he said were trying to ignite a Sunni-Shi'ite war.
''We acknowledge that the primary targets of the insurgency are the innocent men, women, and children of Iraq," Lynch said.
He said attacks against civilians were aimed at enflaming sectarian hatred.
Three US soldiers were killed when roadside bombs hit two US Army convoys southwest of Baghdad, the military said yesterday. Also, four Marines died when their tank rolled off a bridge into a canal and they drowned, the military said today. The deaths were not a result of enemy reaction, the US command said.
The accident happened yesterday in Karmah in Anbar Province. The US command also announced that a US soldier died Tuesday from noncombat-related wounds.
Their deaths raised to at least 2,434 the number of members of the US military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
President Jalal Talabani has appealed to clerics to condemn sectarian violence, which has raised fears of civil war.
In a show of solidarity with the Sunnis, Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ordered all Shi'ite mosques in the mostly Sunni town of Zubayr to close through tomorrow to protest the assassination of a Sunni cleric there.
Sistani's order followed the slaying of Sheik Khaled Ali Obeid al-Saadoun, who was gunned down Wednesday with two associates as he left a mosque. The ayatollah has often spoken out against sectarian violence and played a key role in curbing attacks after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February.
In other violence yesterday, according to police:
At least 14 people were killed in Baghdad, including five municipal street cleaners in an explosion.
A Shi'ite professor, Widad al-Shimri, and her 7-year-old daughter were slain as they drove through Baqubah.
A professor of Islamic law, Dr. Khalaf al-Jumaili, was shot dead after assailants stopped his car in Fallujah.