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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rumors Fueled Fears of Iraqi Civil War

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Anyone in Baghdad on Sunday morning could have been forgiven for thinking the country was on the verge of civil war.

Three Iraqi army battalions had surrounded the town of Madain, just south of Baghdad, where Sunni kidnappers were said to be threatening to kill hundreds of Shiite hostages unless all Shiites left the town. As the National Assembly met, Iraq's top political figures warned of a sectarian crisis between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

But as the army battalions arrived in Madain, they saw streets full of people calmly going about their business. There were no armed Sunni mobs, no cowering Shiite victims.

After hours of careful searches, the soldiers -- assisted by air surveillance -- arrested some people suspected of being insurgents but found no evidence of any kidnappings.

On Sunday evening, a few political leaders were still insisting that some hostages might yet be found. But Iraqi army officials were reporting that the crisis in Madain -- which had been narrated in a stream of breathless television reports and news bulletins -- appeared to be nothing but a tissue of rumors and politically motivated accusations.

The seeming hysteria over Madain was one vivid illustration of the way Iraq's daily violence and sectarian tensions can be easily twisted into fantasy here.

In a country where telephones are unreliable and roads are often blocked, it can be hard to tell the difference between fact and rumor. And most people have good reason to believe the worst.

Before long, the reactions to the crisis took on a sectarian coloring of their own. On Sunday afternoon, a prominent group of hard-line Sunni clerics held a news conference and issued a statement, saying the Madain crisis was a fabrication to stoke animosity against Sunnis.

In the end, the Iraqi army officers who searched Madain delivered their own, more measured verdict.

"This issue was exaggerated for political reasons related to the formation of the new government," said Iraqi army Major General Mudhir Mola Abboud. "We entered the city and did not find any hostages."