Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Madaen Hostage Mystery Still Unsolved

Government investigation seeks to establish truth behind alleged kidnapping of Shia civilians.
By Hussein Ali

Life in Madaen is returning to normal after a disputed hostage crisis that thrust the town, located 40 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, into the international spotlight.


Although there are still checkpoints at the entrances of the town and Iraqi police patrolling the area, most markets and schools have reopened.


Residents were seen going about their normal business, according to IWPR reporters visiting the area on April 24.


“After the Iraqi security forces started patrolling, we were able to come out from our houses,” said Hazim Alwan, a Madaen cab driver.


“This area was like a ghost town for more than a month after the extremists took control of it. But now we can live our normal, daily lives.”


But mystery still surrounds the hostage crisis, and the Iraqi National Assembly has since launched an investigation into what happened in the town.


Parliamentary deputies are also looking into alleged negligence by the defence and interior ministries in the Madaen case. Officials at both ministries have declined to comment.


The crisis began on April 16, when Shia leaders announced that Sunni insurgents had captured around 150 Shia hostages in Madaen and were threatening to kill them unless the community left the town.


Politicians - particularly Shia - expressed their outrage while outgoing prime minister Ayad Allawi blamed al-Qaeda for the kidnappings - although the militant group denied responsibility.


Controversy ensued when American and Iraqi forces were sent into the town to rescue the hostages, but could not find any evidence of kidnappings - prompting accusations that the hostage crisis was staged in order to incite a Sunni-Shia civil war.


A few days later on April 20, Iraq’s new president Jalal Talabani announced that more than 50 bodies found floating in the Tigris river were believed to be those of the Madaen hostages.


But the authorities said some of these corpses appear to have been killed at the end of February, well before the Madaen hostages were allegedly kidnapped.


Jalal al-Deen al-Sagheer, one of five National Assembly committee members investigating Madaen, said more than a hundred bodies have since been found in the Tigris.


“Those bodies had been in the Tigris even before February because the families there were complaining about losing their children back then,” al-Sagheer said on April 26. “But the security forces didn’t play their proper role in finding the perpetrators.”


Residents said insurgents began appearing in Madaen more than a month ago, apparently after fleeing nearby Latifiya, where the government staged a recent crackdown.


They claim that masked gunmen had been roaming the town, and that some - armed with rocket launchers and machine guns - recently told Shia to leave their homes.


“All 11 members of my family had to leave,” said farmer Muhammed Raoof, who just returned to Madaen. “The gunmen told us openly to get out of town or they would kill us.”


Jasim Abd, a grocer, said two of his cousins have been missing for a month and he has not heard any news of their fate.


“We lived in a nightmare,” Abd said. “We Shia could not say anything as the Sunnis had control over everything. Before the entrance of the security forces, we were at their mercy.”


Iraq’s politicians have said they are determined to avoid being drawn into a civil war.


“We will not let extremism achieve its goal of starting a sectarian war in Iraq, no matter what it takes,” said al-Sagheer, who is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance coalition, which is backed by Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and has 148 of the 275 seats in parliament.


Rasim al-Awadi, a member of the largely secular Iraqi List headed by Allawi, said he believed the Madaen hostage crisis is “a game aimed at creating a sectarian problem between Shias and Sunnis”.


“We have to be aware of this and not be dragged into it, as that would be a mistake with serious consequences,” he said.


Hussein Ali al-Yassiri and Yaseen al-Rubai’I are IWPR trainees.


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