Dozens of U.S. Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles took positions around Sadr City at nightfall Wednesday as American forces pressed the search for five Britons kidnapped in a mock police raid that Iraqi officials said was carried by the Mahdi Army Shiite militia.
A secret incident report about the abductions, written by Najwa Fatih-Allah, the director general of the data processing center where the five Britons were seized, quotes Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as saying the Mahdi Army "will be profoundly sorry" if it carried out the assault.
The militia is the armed wing of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement. The firebrand al-Sadr only recently returned to Iraq after about four months hiding in Iran, apparently to avoid trouble during the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, as CBS New chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports, a big part of the U.S.-Iraq security crackdown involves handing over more power to the Iraqi Army. But with so many officers who served under Saddam Hussein now filling the top army ranks, Iraq's prime pinister admits there is a real threat of a coup.
"There are some of them who are still loyal to the previous regime and they are making problems," Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki told Logan in an exclusive interview. "Sometimes they even violate the security of military operations."
"I am not afraid but I have to watch the army because those still loyal to the previous regime may start planning coups," added al-Maliki. "Those people don't believe in democracy and for that reason we are monitoring the status of the army very carefully."
Portions of the incident report about the abductions were read to The Associated Press on the telephone by a government official who did so only on condition of anonymity because the document was not for public distribution.
A top Interior Ministry official, who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said suspicion immediately fell on the Mahdi Army because it was in control of the area and would have blocked such a massive operation by any other group.
Fatih-Allah's report to Finance Minister Bayan Jabr said four men in civilian clothing appeared at the center about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, 15 minutes before the kidnapping.
The account said the four men claimed they were from the government anti-fraud commission and looked through each room in the center, then quickly left the building.
At about 11 a.m. dozens of men in army and police uniforms, the report said, burst into the building, disarmed guards and went directly into the room where the five Britons were working. The five were seized, rushed out of the building to 19 waiting four-wheel-drive vehicles and the convoy drove away to the east.
The building sits on a side street off Palestine Street, a major thoroughfare in eastern Baghdad and not far from Sadr City, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
In other developments:
Fatih-Allah's report said that Iraq's security ministers, meaning the Defense and Interior ministers, said the assault was the work of the Mahdi Army and quoted them as relaying the remark allegedly made by Petraeus.
The five men included four bodyguards working for the Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld and one employee of BearingPoint, a McLean, Virginia-based management consulting firm.
There was speculation in Baghdad that the abductions were revenge for the British military's killing Friday of the Mahdi Army commander in the southern city of Basra.
Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, who lives in the GardaWorld compound and is involved in efforts to free the men, said it was "a possibility" the kidnapping was a response to the killing.
"We're working very hard with various religious leaders to try to work at this issue, but its not easy. It's very, very difficult," he told The Associated Press of efforts to free the men.
White said he had only carried out indirect talks with possible mediators and refused to comment on who may have taken the men.
"We haven't spoken directly to anybody," he said, adding that no demands had been issued by the kidnappers. "It's a very complex situation at the moment, and we have to be very careful."
Members of the militia, who live in Sadr City and professed to know nothing about the kidnapping, said searching the Shiite slum was likely to be pointless. They said their organization, if involved, would have moved the captives to separate locations outside Baghdad.
The Mahdi Army members, who refused to allow use of their names fearing arrest, said they did not believe the kidnapping was revenge for the killing of their Basra leader. The men said organizing such a massive operation would have taken far longer than the three days that elapsed between the militant's death Friday and the Tuesday kidnapping.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said officials were doing all they could to ensure the men were released quickly.
"This is clearly a very distressing time for all concerned," she said upon arriving at a Group of Eight meeting in Potsdam, Germany.
"It is not helpful at this stage to speculate on what might have happened," she said. "We are working closely with the Iraqi authorities to establish the facts and doing all we can to secure their swift and safe return."
Soon after the abduction, Iraqi forces established a special battalion of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to search for the men, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
"We are conducting search operations near the site where the abduction took place," he said Wednesday. "Maybe today or in the coming few days, we will find them with the help of secret intelligence."
Residents of Sadr City said hundreds of American and Iraqi troops sealed off areas of the Shiite neighborhood overnight and carried out a series of arrest raids that lasted until dawn Wednesday. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals for speaking to the Western media.
The U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday that it had arrested five suspected militants and one suspected leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were believed part of a cell that smuggled weapons in from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the statement said.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told BBC radio Wednesday that the government was "vigorously" working to find the men and to find out who was responsible for the attack.
Zebari said that the government has long believed that its security forces were infiltrated by militia members.
"The number of people who were involved in the operation — to seal off the building, to set roadblocks, to get into the building with such confidence — (means they) must have some connection," he said.
Police, Iraqi military, hospital and morgue officials reported a total of 72 people killed or found dead nationwide Wednesday.