Iraqi Police Free Hostages; 5 U.S. Troops Killed

Iraqi police stormed a farm north of Baghdad early Thursday and freed at least 17 people who were snatched a day earlier in a mass kidnapping of 64 workers and family members at the end of a factory shift.

The U.S. military Thursday reported four Marines and a soldier were killed in operations south and west of Baghdad, and an explosion of sectarian and revenge killings in Iraq's third largest city over the past three days claimed 24 lives.

Nine days into a security crackdown in Baghdad, meanwhile, insurgent and sectarian bloodletting was muted, with no major violent incidents reported by midday.

A bomb planted on a motorcycle exploded near a popular market in central Baghdad's Alawi district, killing two people and injuring 25 others.

A road side bomb in Jibla town, 50 kilometers southwest of Kut killed an Iraqi army soldiers and a civilian. In Kut, police said they found six bullet-riddle bodies floating down the Tigris river.

The freed kidnap victims brought to 49 the number of captives who have been either released by their captors or extricated by police. About 30 of the hostages, mainly women and children, were released shortly after they were taken captive. It is routine in Iraq for women to take their children to work.

Industry Minister Fowzi Hariri told state-run Iraqiya TV that 64 people were kidnapped as they were heading home and two people were killed when they resisted.

One kidnap victim, a Shiite Muslim, said he was set free Wednesday night after showing the kidnappers a forged ID card listing him as a Sunni. He said two hostages had been killed trying to escape. The man refused to give his name fearing retribution.

"As we were leaving the factory we were stopped by gunmen. The got on our buses and told us to put our heads down. Then they took us to a poultry farm," the man said.

"One of the gunmen told us to stand in one line and then asked the Sunnis to get out of the line. That's what I did. They asked me to prove that I am a Sunni, so I showed the forged ID and three others did the same. They released us," the man said.

A National Security Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, told The Associated Press that several insurgents holding the kidnap victims were captured during the Thursday morning raid on the farm in the Mishada area, 20 miles north of the capital.

Police operations were continuing in the area, the official said, in a bid to locate the rest of the victims who were taken at the end of the day shift at al-Nasr General Complex, a former military plant that now makes metal doors, windows and pipes.

Sectarian violence has raged in the region and tit-for-tat kidnappings and revenge killings are common, but nothing had been reported on the scale of Wednesday's mass abduction. The al-Nasr plant is between Baghdad and Taji, a predominantly Sunni Arab area.

The chief lawyer representing Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants, meanwhile, said the men went on a hunger strike to protest the shooting death Wednesday of an attorney on the ousted Iraqi leader's defense team. It was the third such killing in the 8-month-old trial.

The military said the four Marines were killed Tuesday in insurgency-ridden Anbar province, three of them in a roadside bombing and a fourth in a separate operation. A soldier died Wednesday south of the capital, the military said, giving no further details.

At least 2,512 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.

The killings in Mosul occurred primarily in groups of ones and two, with several of the dead found dumped throughout the city. All the victims died in targeted shooting attacks, Mosul police Capt. Ahmed Khalil told The Associated Press.

About a dozen people were killed in other violence nationwide Wednesday, and an al-Qaida-led insurgent group announced it would execute four Russian hostages who were kidnapped June 3. The Russian Embassy in Baghdad said it had no new information on the fate of the four. A fifth Russian was killed when the men were captured.

Lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi, a Sunni Arab who represented Saddam and his half brother Barzan Ibrahim, was abducted from his home Wednesday morning. His body was found riddled with bullets on a street near the Shiite slum of Sadr City. Police provided a photo of al-Obeidi's face, head and shoulders drenched in blood.

Saddam's chief attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, blamed the killing on the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis have alleged is infiltrated by so-called Shiite death squads.

"We strongly condemn this act and we condemn the killings done by the Interior Ministry forces against Iraqis," he said.

Al-Dulaimi told the AP in Amman, Jordan, that Saddam and his co-defendants "went on a hunger strike today to protest the killing of Khamis al-Obeidi."

"They pledged not to end the strike until international protection is provided to the defense team," he said.

The report of Saddam and the others conducting a hunger strike could not independently confirmed, but it would not be the first time the defense team has said their clients were refusing food.

On Feb. 28, al-Obeidi said Saddam and several other defendants had ended a hunger strike he said they'd started Feb. 12 to protest the chief judge in their trial. In December 2004, the U.S. military acknowledged that eight of Saddam's 11 top lieutenants went on a weekend hunger strike to demand jail visits from the international Red Cross.

Bushra al-Khalil, a Lebanese member of the defense team, said al-Obeidi was taken from his house by men dressed in police uniforms and driving four-wheel-drive vehicles used by Iraqi security forces.

However, al-Obeidi's widow, Um Laith, was quoted on The New York Times' Web site as saying the attackers wore civilian clothes. She said 20 men burst into their house while the couple and their children were sleeping, and identified themselves as members of an Interior Ministry security brigade.

There was no comment from the ministry.

Al-Obeidi was the third member of Saddam's defense team to be killed since the trial began Oct. 19. His colleagues said the brutal slaying was an attempt to intimidate the defense before it begins final arguments July 10, a process that will take about 10 days.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi said the trial would continue.

The U.S. Embassy urged the lawyers and their families to "accept the full range of security measures offered for their protection."