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Fighting breaks out in area of Iraq where 5 security contractors were seized

BAGHDAD, Iraq — British ground forces and U.S. military helicopters fought with gunmen Friday in southern Iraq where four American security contractors and their Austrian co-worker were abducted in a convoy hijacking near the Kuwait border.
    As the coalition forces searched the area around the border city of Safwan for the Crescent Security Group employees, confusion grew about the fate of the captives.
    A top Iraqi police official in Basra said none of the five kidnapped security company employees had been freed. He claimed the provincial governor, who announced the release of two of the hostages, had confused separate incidents in the same area involving private security forces.
    Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi said the five security contractors kidnapped Friday were still in the hands of what he called a criminal gang. He said the kidnappers had demanded a ransom.
    Al-Moussawi said police believed the five were being held in the Safwan region along with trucks from the convoy.
    Only hours earlier, Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili said two of the kidnap victims had been freed and one of the five was found dead near the Sunni-majority city of Safwan. He gave no nationalities.
    Al-Moussawi said the governor’s confusion arose out of a second incident, this one on Friday in the same area, in which a convoy led by a different private security company was stopped by customs police.
    As police checked the papers of the British security men in the lead vehicle a car drove by at high speed and opened fire, he said, killing one Briton and injuring a second. Al-Moussawi said the governor apparently assumed the dead and injured were from the kidnapped group of five.
    It was impossible to confirm either report — or a report that the Austrian had been found dead — and American officials in Baghdad said they had no information on the hostages being released.
    Shortly after the Crescent convoy was hijacked while driving through Safwan on a highway that connects Kuwait and southern Iraq, nine other employees of the company from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines were released by the captors, the company said.
    At dawn Friday, British ground forces and U.S. helicopters searched the Safwan area for gunmen who had attacked coalition forces in the past few days when about 10 of them opened fire from farm buildings.
    The British and U.S. forces returned fire, killing at least two gunmen, Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, said in a telephone interview from Basra.
    In London, a spokeswoman at Britain’s Ministry of Defense said, ‘‘We were looking to arrest individuals involved in terrorist activities.’’ She said the raid was unrelated to the hostage seizure.
    As violence in Iraq continued to spiral out of control, a crisis was brewing for Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
    The influential Association of Muslim Scholars called on Sunni politicians to quit Iraq’s government and parliament, angered by the government’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for the association’s leader, Harith al-Dhari.
    Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the association, said the arrest warrant was political cover for ‘‘the acts of the government’s security agencies that kill dozens of Iraqis every day.’’
    Al-Kubaisi called for ‘‘political groups to withdraw from parliament and the government, which has proven that it is not a national government.’’
    Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called for the government to cancel the warrant.
    Al-Dhari, who is in Jordan, said the arrest warrant was illegal and ‘‘proof of the failure and the confusion of the Iraqi government.’’
    Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani issued the warrant on Thursday night, declaring on state television that al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence. Afterward, however, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, also a Shiite, sought to minimize it as an ‘‘investigation warrant.’’ The spokesman said it is up to judicial authorities to issue an arrest warrant.
    And Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the Cabinet and the president’s office had no knowledge about the arrest warrant, which is seen as certain to inflame Iraq’s raging sectarian violence. The interior minister is a Shiite, while al-Dhari is a Sunni extremist who recently mocked a government offer of reconciliation in return for abandoning the insurgency.
    Al-Dhari, who has been outside Iraq for months, said: ‘‘The timing of the warrant came when the Iraqi government felt embarrassed by its failure in security.’’
    President Bush, speaking Friday in Asia, promised to stand with the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
    ‘‘We’ll succeed unless we quit,’’ Bush said. ‘‘The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it.’’
    Control of the area where the kidnapping took place had been formally handed to the Iraqi government from British and Italian forces.
    An Iraqi police officer said the Crescent Security Group convoy had been stopped at a checkpoint on Thursday by Iraqi men, some of them wearing police uniforms. The company works mostly in Iraq, and its operations are based in Kuwait. Many of its managers and employees are American.
    A State Department official informed the family of Paul Reuben, 39, a former suburban Minneapolis police officer who was working as a security contractor in Iraq, that he was among those captured, his brother, Patrick Reuben, told the Star Tribune newspaper and KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn.

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