Dozens abducted in Iraq

Gunmen take at least 60 from Baghdad market in morning raid

December 15, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- "They're here! They're here!"

The panicked cry rose from the crowd of shoppers and businessmen, sending them into a stampede past storefronts and shocked onlookers. Men, women and children fell over handcarts and folding chairs, knocking each other down, hiding behind buildings and seeking shelter in shops.

None knew who "they" were: uniformed men firing weapons in the air and herding people into trucks, just a few hundred yards from the edge of the U.S.-guarded Green Zone.

But most had suspected that such a day might come to the Sinak market of downtown Baghdad. All knew to run at first sight of the uniformed gunmen who have become signature elements of the all-too-common mass kidnappings in the capital.

"We weren't really surprised," said Hossein Abu Marwa, an employee of an air-conditioner shop in the sprawling market. "We face such threats on a daily basis. Sometimes we hear they're coming from this side or that side. We don't know who is shooting. We don't know who is coming. Are they the resistance? Are they armed criminals? You don't know if they're Sunni. You don't know if they're Shiite."

This time, at least 60 people disappeared within minutes, stuffed into four delivery trucks and hauled away toward eastern Baghdad.

An Interior Ministry official reported later that at least 23 of the shopkeepers had been released unharmed in northern Baghdad, after showing their captors identity cards bearing names associated with Shiite Muslims.

The fate of previous victims of mass kidnappings has been brutal: Most show up dead within days, often with signs of torture, such as drill holes.

Yesterday's abduction took place in and around the auto-supply section of the open-air Sinak wholesale market, a few hundred yards from the headquarters of Iraq's Ministry of Defense.

It began around 10 a.m. when about a dozen sport utility vehicles of the type often used by official security forces screeched into the market and sealed off the main roads, witnesses said.

Heavy gunfire ensued almost immediately.

"I saw the four-wheel-drive cars arrive, as well as trucks for transporting prisoners," a witness said. "I immediately realized something grave was going on."

The shopkeepers said they clutched their guns as the drama began, fearful of criminals. When they realized that the invaders were heavily armed and in official guise, they put their weapons away.

"They were men in uniform," said Ahmad Jassem Saadi, the 39-year-old owner of a leather jacket shop. "What could I do?"

Saadi, along with other shopkeepers, stood at the doors of their shops and watched.

"They detained a group of people, and then they started taking other sellers and even passers-by," he said. "The people struggled. They were taken by force and put into trucks."

Some described the trucks as the type used to transport milk and meat products. Others said they were like armored vehicles used to carry money.

They began to fill up.

The gunfire continued. The panic mounted.

Hassan Khafaji, shopping for a part to repair his 1990 Oldsmobile sedan, lay on the ground as the shooting continued. He crawled to an alley, stood up and fled.

"I just kept running and running until I got somewhere safe," he said.

Yassin Hashim, who works at a refrigerator motor shop within the market's labyrinth of alleys, helped an elderly man to his feet after the jittery mob knocked him to the ground.

"He was too weak to get away," Hashim said.

"Some people were running and screaming," Saadi recalled. "Others were frozen in their place, watching."

"They were just looking for a place to hide," said Hashim. "Some people thought there were snipers."

The ordeal was over within 15 minutes, witnesses said. A detachment of Iraqi soldiers arrived and sealed off the area. Some witnesses described the kidnappers as police commandos, but a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the suspects wore army uniforms.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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