Gunmen abduct dozens in Baghdad

Iraqi Olympic Committee group kidnapped

July 16, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Heavily armed gunmen in camouflage and police uniforms swarmed a downtown cultural center yesterday and kidnapped the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and dozens of colleagues, even as the country's new interior minister spoke of punishing lawbreakers within his ranks.

Two U.S. service members were killed in Baghdad yesterday in separate roadside bomb explosions, and at least 30 Iraqis were reported killed around the country.

Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a 45-year-old engineer with no policing experience, was appointed last month to take over a ministry where brutality and corruption are rampant. He vowed yesterday to fight criminality and violence within the police force by setting up new commissions and numbering police vehicles so they can't be used for illicit operations.

His ministry has been Iraq's most troubled institution, the alleged wellspring of Shiite Muslim death squads that terrorized Sunni Arab communities and secret prisons where inmates were tortured. His predecessor, Bayan Jabr, was accused by Iraqi and U.S. critics of tolerating the ministry's reign of terror.

Security has emerged as Iraqis' paramount concern, with residents cowering in fear of armed men dominating the streets. Despite a monthlong security crackdown in the capital, Bolani said 40 car bombs have exploded in the city, with 17 others found and dismantled. Suspected Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents have rampaged through neighborhoods, carrying out street-side executions. Mass kidnappings - often carried out by men in squad cars wearing police uniforms - are a worsening scourge.

A source in the Baghdad police operations center said 51 people were kidnapped in yesterday's incident, but witnesses estimated 30 to 40 were abducted, including Olympic committee leader Ahmed Hajiiya and some athletes.

"They immediately handcuffed the guards," said Idrees Salih, a witness to the kidnappings.

Insurgents have assassinated figures from all segments of Iraqi civil society, but what appears to be a systematic and growing targeting of athletes - many of them young, apolitical teens from impoverished backgrounds - has shocked Iraqis already numb to daily violence.

In May, 17 members of a Baghdad tae kwon do team were kidnapped on their way to Jordan, where they hoped to get visas for a U.S. tournament. Their fate is unknown. A leader of the country's taekwondo association was among those kidnapped yesterday.

In more violence targeting Iraqi and American forces, a pair of roadside bombs struck a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol in southeast Baghdad yesterday, leaving at least one U.S. service member and six Iraqis dead, the U.S. military and Iraqi police said.

Another American, a member of the 49th Military Police Brigade, was killed hours earlier when his Humvee struck a roadside bomb near the capital's mostly Shiite Sadr City neighborhood.

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