50 travelers kidnapped in Iraq

June 06, 2006|By MEGAN K. STACK AND SAIF RASHEED | MEGAN K. STACK AND SAIF RASHEED,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Clad in camouflage uniforms, the gunmen came peeling through the thick morning heat in police trucks. They stopped at a downtown strip of travel companies where Iraqis gather each morning to board buses bound for the safer lands of Syria and Jordan. The gunmen leapt to the ground, witnesses said, and they worked fast.

They seized more than 50 people, pulling men away from their families and hauling drivers from behind the wheels of buses. They handcuffed the men, blindfolded them and stuffed them into the backs of the trucks. They covered some of the captives with sheets.

And then they were gone, slamming doors and speeding off into the brilliant sunlight. It was only nine o'clock in a city where security has come unraveled, just another mundane scene that splintered suddenly into violence.

"Those are criminals going after the ransom," said Saad Tawil, a 42-year-old manager of one of the travel companies clustered on the street in downtown Baghdad. "They will see who is important or rich, and who is not, after interrogating them."

But other mass kidnappings that have struck Baghdad this year remain unsolved. In some cases, the victims have never turned up again, living or dead.

The mass kidnapping came one day after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was forced to concede that Iraq's warring communities are too mutually distrustful to agree on who should run the security services. Having suspended indefinitely a parliament vote on key security ministries, Maliki has left the army and police leadership dangling in a vacuum at a time when bloodshed in Baghdad, and across Iraq, has spiraled.

More people were shot, stabbed or killed in other violence in May than in any other month since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to statistics tallied by the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

That figure does not include dead soldiers or civilians killed in bombings, in which victims are not usually given autopsies.

Last month alone, 1,398 bodies were taken to Baghdad's central morgue, the ministry said. All over the capital and out into the provinces, corpses surface on a daily basis in garbage dumps, in abandoned cars or sprawled along roadsides. They often bear marks of bondage and torture.

The attacks are frequently characterized by their brazen nature. Gunmen climbed onto a Baghdad bus yesterday and shot dead at least two Shiite students, an Interior Ministry source said.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi court handed down what was believed to be the first conviction in the abduction of a foreigner, sentencing a 30-year-old Iraqi man yesterday to life in prison for helping the kidnappers of British aid worker Margaret Hassan.

Two others were acquitted, a court official said. Hassan, 59, the director of CARE international in Iraq, was one of the highest-profile figures to fall victim to the wave of kidnappings sweeping the nation. She was married to an Iraqi, had lived here for 30 years and spent nearly half her life helping Iraqis.

She was abducted in Baghdad in October 2004. She was killed a month later and her body has never been found.

Megan K. Stack and Saif Rasheed write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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