Mass daytime kidnapping shocks Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms and driving vehicles with Interior Ministry markings rounded up dozens of people inside a government building in the heart of Baghdad on Tuesday and drove off with them in one of t...

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms and driving vehicles with Interior Ministry markings rounded up dozens of people inside a government building in the heart of Baghdad on Tuesday and drove off with them in one of the most brazen mass kidnappings since a wave of sectarian abductions and killings became a feature of the war.

Although some Iraqi officials said as many as 150 people had been taken, the U.S. military command put the total at 55.

Elsewhere, a U.S. airstrike in the restive town of Ramadi killed at least 30 people, including women and children, witnesses said Tuesday.

The aerial attack, which took place late Monday night, brought the number of violent deaths reported in Iraq on Tuesday to at least 91 people, according to military sources and witnesses.

U.S. military officials had no immediate comment on an airstrike in Ramadi. Rather, the military released a statement announcing that American troops in Ramadi killed 11 alleged insurgents in a series of attacks that appeared to be unrelated to any airstrike.


In the Baghdad abductions, witnesses said as many as 50 gunmen arrived at the Ministry of Higher Education compound at midmorning, forced their way past a handful of guards and stormed through a four-story building, herding office workers, visitors and even a delivery boy outside at rifle point. After women were separated, the men were loaded aboard a fleet of more than 30 pickup trucks and two larger trucks, then driven away through heavy traffic toward mainly Shiite neighborhoods on the city's eastern edge, officials and witnesses said.

It was one of the largest mass abductions since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, startling even by the standards of a nation reeling from sectarian strife, daily bombings and death squads. The last high-profile mass kidnapping occurred in July, when gunmen seized more than 30 people from an Iraqi Olympics Committee meeting. Six were later released, but the fate of the rest is still unknown.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, announced on state television several hours after the abductions that orders had been issued for the arrest of several police commanders from the Karada area in eastern Baghdad, the site of the Higher Education Ministry.

That announcement, combined with other details, including accounts by one of a group of about a dozen people released by the kidnappers later on Tuesday, appeared to suggest that the abductions may have been the latest in a series of mass kidnappings carried out by Shiite gangs and death squads operating from inside the Interior Ministry, or with access to its uniforms and vehicles.

Higher Education Minister Abed Thiyab promptly suspended classes at all universities, fearing that more professors or students could be targeted. He told parliament that he had repeatedly asked for more security to protect academic institutions but that his request had not been fulfilled.

"We strongly condemn this act because it is a savage terrorist action," Thiyab said. "This contradicts the sense of credibility in the new Iraq."

If Tuesday's abductions are traced to groups operating under Interior Ministry cover, they seem certain to add to political tensions in Baghdad.

Recent events in the United States, including the Democrats' midterm election gains last week and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have intensified U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and the alliance of Shiite religious groups he leads to act decisively to improve his government's performance -- in effect, to show that America has an effective partner in the war, and help to counter momentum in Washington for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.


Action against sectarian militias and death squads, particularly those associated with the governing Shiite parties, tops U.S. priorities that have been requested of the Iraqi leader, most recently in a meeting in Baghdad on Monday with the top American military commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid.

Late Tuesday, al-Maliki, appearing on state television, appeared anxious to establish that he had responded swiftly to the abductions, saying that he had ordered the Defense and Interior ministries to mount an intense search for the people seized.

The 56-year-old prime minister said security sweeps had been responsible for the dozen people released earlier in the day, though that did not immediately tally with an account given by a Shiite ministry official who was among those set free. The official said that he and others in his group had been separated from the main body of those taken from the ministry by their kidnappers after the gunmen quizzed their captives about their identities and occupations. After being driven blindfolded to a rural area in northern Baghdad, the official said, they were abandoned and left to make their own way to safety.

The government's swift response in ordering the arrest of police commanders in the neighborhood where Tuesday's kidnappings occurred was a break with a pattern of inaction bordering on indifference in several earlier mass kidnappings that appeared to have been linked to Shiite death squads.

While concern to show a new resolve to restive critics of the war in Washington probably was a major spur, another was the scale and audaciousness of Tuesday's attack. By seizing such a large number of people from a government building, in the center of the capital in broad daylight, the kidnappers appeared to be sending a message that they could pounce anywhere.

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