Dozens Abducted in Brazen Raid on Iraq Ministry

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Iraqis gathered Tuesday at the Ministry of Higher Education compound after dozens were kidnapped.

November 15, 2006

Dozens Abducted in Brazen Raid on Iraq Ministry

BAGHDAD, Wednesday, Nov. 15 — 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 American military command put the total at 55.

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.

Late in the evening there were conflicting reports that some or most of those taken had been freed. Iraqiya state television reported that most of those seized had been freed in security operations, but a Shiite station, Al Furat, said 25 people were still missing, according to Reuters. None of the reports could be confirmed.

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, site of the Higher Education Ministry.

The announcement combined with other details, including accounts by one of a group of about a dozen people released by the kidnappers later on Tuesday, 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. If the abductions are traced to groups operating under Interior Ministry cover, they seem certain to add a new level of crisis to the political tensions in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said a brigade of the police searching in eastern Baghdad had found and freed 30 kidnap victims. He said the brigade was continuing its search and expected to free the remaining victims before the end of the day.

Recent events in the United States, including the Democrats’ midterm election gains last week and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have intensified American pressure on Prime Minister Nuri 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 trustworthy partner, and help to head off the momentum in Washington for a withdrawal of American troops.

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

Late on Tuesday, Mr. Maliki, appearing on state-run television, seemed eager to establish that he had responded swiftly to the abductions, saying that he had ordered the Defense and Interior Ministries to mount an intensive search for those seized.

During a meeting with the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, Mr. Maliki appeared to suggest that the kidnappers came from the Mahdi Army, an unruly militia headed by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, a mainstay of the ruling Shiite alliance. “What is happening is not terrorism, but the result of disagreements and conflict between militias belonging to this side or that,” he said.

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 the account given by a Shiite ministry official who was among those set free. The official said he and others in his group were separated from the main body of those seized by their kidnappers after the gunmen quizzed all 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 the police commanders broke with a pattern of inaction 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 was likely to have been a major spur, another was the sheer scale and audacity of the 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 with impunity.

The precise number abducted remained uncertain. In an angry, anguished address delivered on live television, Abed Thiab al-Ajili, the higher education minister and a member of the country’s largest Sunni political bloc, told Parliament that 100 to 150 people had been taken; ministry officials said they included Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians. A similar figure was given by the Shiite ministry official who was released. His figure, though, appeared to be based on a rough count of the people working in the building and visitors, rather than an accurate head count of those abducted.

The American military command, which sent troops to the site of the kidnappings, said its investigation showed that the number of men taken was about 55. It also said there were indications that the kidnapping victims had been taken to the Baladiyat district in eastern Baghdad, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood on the southern fringe of Sadr City about three miles from the building where they were seized.

The fact that the kidnappers took captives from a wide cross-section of Iraq’s cultural and religious groups created some confusion about their motives, though many previous kidnappings have followed a similar pattern.

In his speech to Parliament, Mr. Ajili, the higher education minister, skirted the question of whether the kidnapping was motivated by sectarian hatred. But he suggested that the Maliki government was incompetent, if not complicit in the abductions. He said he had repeatedly asked the government for additional security to protect the ministry and members of the university community, who have been favorite targets for assassination since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

According to a tally by The Associated Press, more than 150 educators have been killed, and thousands of others have fled the country. “I told the M.O.I. and M.O.D. if you can’t protect the universities, give me 800 recruits and I will do this mission,” Mr. Ajili said, referring to the Ministries of Interior and Defense. “But they rejected the idea.”

Shiite leaders have often said that kidnappers who have been linked to the Interior Ministry have in fact been criminal thugs, or even Sunni insurgents, who have acquired the military-style uniforms used in the attack from street markets where they are widely available. Basil al-Khateed, a spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry, counseled against hasty conclusions. “It’s not clear if this kidnapping was sectarian or not,” he said.

Witnesses said the gunmen arrived at the ministry about 9:30 a.m. in a long line of vehicles that appeared to be on police business. “I saw around 30 Interior Ministry vehicles which did not have license plates close the road, and then the commandos stepped out of their vehicles,” said one man who worked in a government agency nearby but asked not to be identified. Mr. Khateed, the ministry spokesman, said the gunmen told ministry guards and onlookers that the American ambassador was arriving.

The ministry official who was later released said he was in his office inside the building. The gunmen, in the blue camouflage uniforms worn by police commandos, flooded into the building, the official said, and told him they were from the government’s integrity commission, an agency that investigates corruption.

Suddenly, however, the gunmen cocked their weapons and yelled for everyone to stay where they were, the official said. They gathered the women in one room, before eventually letting them go, Mr. Ajili, the minister, said, but not before taking their cellphones and sorting through them for newer models, which they stole, leaving older models behind. He said the men taken captive had their hands bound behind them and their eyes blindfolded before being taken out to the pickup trucks.

Iraqi police and army units in the area did nothing to stop the abductions, witnesses and officials said, either because they believed the gunmen were legitimate commandos, or, some suggested, because they were part of a preset plan. “We are astonished by this,” said Saleem Abdulla, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Consensus Front, the main Sunni bloc in Parliament. “It just seems so odd. How can people kidnap about 100 people like that, in daylight?”

He added: “And what about the vehicles? What about the checkpoints? Aren’t we in a state of emergency? And no one can trace these people? No one can follow them to find out who they are? It is very odd. We think there has to be some link between these gangs and powerful men in the M.O.I.”

The released Shiite official, who spoke later on Iraqi television but did not give his name, said the gunmen yelled at motorists to clear the road as they headed east through the traffic from the ministry building.

The official said the gunmen had taken their captives into a large hall with a concrete floor, then began to quiz each of them, demanding their names, often an indicator of their sect, as well as identity cards. “They split us into two groups,” he said. “The first group, they said, ‘We will release you.’ The second group, ‘We will keep you for additional investigation.’ They put me in the group that would be released. When they said that, I thought, no, they will kill me. I was sure they would kill me. They were shouting, ‘We will kill everyone who doesn’t listen to us.’ ”

But the gunmen put him and the others in his group back onto the pickup trucks, and drove them elsewhere, the official said. There, he said, they were told to sit on the ground and not move, and warned that anyone removing a blindfold would be killed.

But after 10 minutes of silence, he said, one of the men in the group mustered the courage to clear his eyes, and told the others they were safe. “We don’t know why they took us, and why they released us,” the official said. “It’s a terrorist operation with a big criminal ring that planned this.”

Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded near a busy market in the capital, killing 10 people and wounding 25 others, an Interior Ministry official said. Late Monday and into Tuesday, clashes erupted between members of the Mahdi Army militia and American troops, leaving six civilians dead and 13 wounded, an Interior Ministry official said. The police found 25 bodies dumped across the city on Tuesday, the official said.

Reporting was contributed by Ali Adeeb, Khalid al-Ansary, Qais Mizher, Omar al-Neami, Kirk Semple and Sabrina Tavernise.

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