- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

BAGHDAD — Suspected Shi’ite militiamen dressed as Interior Ministry commandos stormed a Higher Education Ministry office yesterday and kidnapped dozens of people after clearing the area under the guise of providing security for what they said would be a visit by the U.S. ambassador.

Witnesses and authorities said the gunmen raced through all four stories of the building, forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard about 20 pickup trucks.

Shortly afterward, authorities arrested five senior police officers in connection with the abductions — the police chief and five top subordinates in the Karradah district, the central Baghdad region where the kidnappers struck, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

There were varying estimates of the number of people kidnapped.

Officials initially said 100 or more men had been seized, but a government spokesman said later yesterday that 20 had been released within hours and the kidnappers were holding about 50 hostages, according to Reuters news agency.

The state television channel Al Iraqiya said most of the hostages seized at the ministry building had been freed in operations by security forces in Baghdad.

Al Iraqiya quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying operations were continuing to free the remaining hostages.

Al Furat, a television station controlled by a major Shi’ite political group, said 25 hostages were still missing.

The abductions in broad daylight raised further questions about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s commitment to wiping out the heavily armed Shi’ite militias of his prime political backers: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The abductions were thought to be the work of the Mahdi Army, the heavily armed al-Sadr militia that controls the Karradah district.

Mr. al-Maliki, who leads a Shi’ite-dominated government, appeared to minimize the importance of yesterday’s kidnappings.

“What is happening is not terrorism, but the result of disagreements and conflict between militias belonging to this side or that,” Mr. al-Maliki said during a meeting with President Jalal Talabani.

The kidnapping was thought to have been in retribution for the abduction three days earlier of 50 Shi’ite passengers who were snatched off minibuses by Sunni gunmen at a fake checkpoint along the highway near Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. The gunmen killed 10 passengers before making off with their captives.

Alaa Makki, head of parliament’s education committee, said the gunmen had a list of names of those to take. Those kidnapped reportedly included the office’s deputy general directors, employees and visitors.

The facility appeared to be an easy target. Police and witnesses said the gunmen, estimated at 80, had closed off streets surrounding the ministry. Four guards put up no resistance and were unharmed, police said.

Mr. Makki said the gunmen claimed to be helping the government’s anti-corruption body check on security ahead of a planned visit by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

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