Gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms rounded up dozens of men at a government building in central Baghdad on Tuesday and drove off, in what may be the biggest mass kidnapping seen in a city becoming used to such violence.
A source at the Interior Ministry said 20 employees of the Higher Education Ministry were seized. But a spokesperson for the department itself said dozens of men — ”100 or maybe 150” — had been rounded up, including many visitors to the building.
Women were separated from the men and locked in a room after having their cellphones confiscated by the gunmen, who drove up to the ministry’s Research Directorate in the commercial, religiously mixed district of Karrada, in government vehicles.
”All Interior Ministry forces are on alert, searching for this group. We don’t know if it’s terrorists, militias or even government forces,” Interior Ministry spokesperson Brigadier Abdul Kareem Khalaf said, declining to say how many people were missing.
Numerous mass kidnappings have been blamed on sectarian militias operating either within the security forces or with the help of police in providing equipment.
The once dominant Sunni minority and United States officials have focused particular suspicion on militias from the now dominant Shi’ite Muslim parties, who control the Interior Ministry.
The Higher Education Ministry is headed by a member of the main Sunni Arab political bloc. Most ministries have become fiefdoms of particular parties.
Not far from the ministry building attacked on Tuesday, about 30 sports officials and athletes, including the head of Iraq’s national Olympic Committee, were seized during a meeting in July by gunmen in uniform. Some were later freed but many, including the Olympics chief, have never been heard of again.
Last month, the 26-strong workforce of a Baghdad meat-processing factory were also seized in similar circumstances.
Some kidnap victims are ransomed but many end up among the dozens of corpses, found bound and tortured, on the streets of Baghdad every day. On Monday alone, 46 were found and the morgue says it is taking in about 50 unclaimed bodies a day.
After the incident involving the meat factory workers, the government removed a number of senior police officers who had responsibility for the area and took an entire brigade of police out of service for vetting and re-training.
Washington, under mounting domestic political pressure to start pulling its 150 000 troops out of Iraq, has placed a heavy emphasis on recruiting and training Iraqi security forces, which now number more than 300 000.
But their competence and sectarian loyalties remain a matter of grave concern as the government struggles to slow a slide toward all-out civil war. – Reuters