Following reports of ethic tensions, kidnappings, threats of mass-killings, it appears that the whole thing was exaggerated just a little. The NY Times reports:
Anyone in Baghdad this 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 Madaen, just south of the capital, 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 grave sectarian crisis. Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric issued a plea for restraint. Even the outgoing prime minister released a statement decrying the “savage, filthy, and dirty atrocities” in Madaen.
But as the army battalions arrived in Madaen, they saw streets full of people calmly sipping tea in cafés and 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 found no evidence of any kidnappings or refugees at all.
By this afternoon, Iraqi army officials were reporting that the crisis in Madaen, which had been narrated in a stream of breathless television reports and news agency stories, was nothing but a tissue of rumors and politically motivated accusations.
The hysteria over Madaen was one vivid illustration of the way Iraq’s daily violence and sectarian tension, which are real enough, can be easily twisted into fantasy here. In a country where phones are unreliable and roads between cities often blocked, facts can give way to a fast-running engine of rumor. And most people have good reason to believe the worst.