Iraqis bicker over numbers in kidnapping

November 16, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- A day after a mass kidnapping raid in the capital, Shiite and Sunni Arab government officials bickered yesterday over the number of men still missing.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said 39 men were abducted Tuesday by heavily armed gunmen wearing police uniforms and that all but two had been released.

Sunni Arab officials, including the minister in charge of the Higher Education Ministry building where the raid took place, said that as many as 150 were kidnapped and that 70 are missing.

Ministry fears were compounded yesterday by the discovery around the capital of 55 unidentified bodies. In addition, higher-education officials questioned the motives of the government and their tally of the missing men.

They also criticized al-Maliki's insistence that the kidnappers were not police commandos and his reluctance to blame Shiite militias, some of whom have infiltrated the force and conducted death squad killings and kidnappings. Al-Maliki is a Shiite, and the ministry is run by Sunni Arabs.

During a news conference at the University of Baghdad, al-Maliki said the government had responded effectively and pledged to punish the perpetrators of the raid.

Five Iraqi security officials, including the police chief and an Iraqi army general in charge of the Karada district, where the raid took place, remained in custody yesterday.

Abed Thiab Ajili, a Sunni who is minister of higher education and scientific research, repeated yesterday his assertion that 150 men were abducted. He said he was suspending his leadership of Iraq's 200 universities and research centers until the last hostage is freed.

Ministry spokesman Basil Ismael Khateeb said the number of released captives proves that estimates by al-Maliki's office are too low and that initial reports that more than 100 men were abducted are more accurate.

Khateeb said ministry officials arrived at that number by counting the number of men who work at the Scholarship and Cultural Relations Directorate office daily, interviewing released hostages and witnesses, and estimating the number of visitors who might have been at the office at the time of the raid.

Even the lower estimate would mean that the mass kidnapping was among the largest in a battle zone where ransom demands and disappearances are commonplace.

Sunni insurgents and Shiite paramilitary groups engage in kidnappings to intimidate opponents. Mafia-style ransom networks also abduct people with impunity.

Kidnappings by men in police uniforms raise the specter of militia death squad operations that have led to the daily discovery of mutilated and dumped corpses, many of them Sunnis.

Khateeb said telephone hot lines set up after Tuesday's raid have been ringing constantly with calls from relatives searching for loved ones.

Ministry officials and Sunni leaders said yesterday that they were worried that some of those abducted might be among the bodies found around Baghdad. By last night, however, none of the bodies had been identified as those of victims of Tuesday's kidnapping.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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