By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 9, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 8 -- Gunmen wearing what appeared to be the uniforms of Iraqi Interior Ministry commandos stormed a private security company in the capital Wednesday afternoon and kidnapped as many as 50 employees, a ministry official said. In an atmosphere of spiraling lawlessness, other violence killed at least 47 people across the country between Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
In the deadliest incident, the bodies of 18 men, all bound at the wrists and blindfolded, were found piled in an abandoned minibus late Tuesday by a U.S. military patrol in Mansour, a mixed neighborhood of Shiite and Sunni Arabs in western Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday.
Baghdad police said that 15 of the victims, including the driver, had been strangled and that three had been shot in the back of the head.
The killings and mass kidnapping were new illustrations of deteriorating security in many parts of Iraq, particularly the capital. Multiple slayings, often of people from the same family or religious sect discovered bound and gagged, have become commonplace.
Sunni Arab politicians and religious leaders allege that death squads from Iraq's Shiite-led Interior Ministry -- which reportedly has absorbed many members of private Shiite militias who have conflicting loyalties -- are often behind the killings. The government denies the charge.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson said American troops in January had arrested a group of 22 Interior Ministry police commandos on the verge of executing a detained Sunni man. "We have found one of the death squads," Peterson said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, which first reported the incident. "We continue to believe that there's more of these out there."
A bomb planted under a car exploded Wednesday in Baghdad as a convoy from the Interior Ministry was passing, killing two ministry commandos who were securing the route and injuring three bodyguards assigned to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, according to Col. Hadi al-Timimi of the Baghdad police. He said Jabr, one of the top Shiite officials in the government, was not riding in the convoy.
Gunmen in western Baghdad attacked the home of an Interior Ministry adviser, Maj. Gen. Moussa Salman, killing two of his bodyguards, the Reuters news agency reported.
The violence has escalated since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, two weeks ago and has taken on increasingly sectarian tones. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the bombing, many in Shiite-Sunni violence that political and military analysts fear could push the country into civil war.
The violence has fueled political chaos as well. Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians are refusing to back the Shiites' nominee for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, saying he has failed to improve the country's security in the year he has served as transitional prime minister. Iraq's new parliament has not met since it was elected in December, and leaders are threatening to delay its scheduled first session on Sunday because of arguments over who should lead the government.
Accounts of Wednesday's mass kidnapping were jumbled. There was no word late Wednesday on the fate of the people who were abducted.
According to Maj. Ahseen Mohammed Saeed of the Baghdad police, witnesses told officers that 20 people wearing Interior Ministry uniforms had raided the office of the Rawafid security company in Zayouna, a mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, at about 3 p.m. The men arrived in three pickup trucks, Saeed said, and abducted as many as 50 of the company's employees.
Three of the company's guards were injured when the offices were stormed, Saeed said, but they escaped and informed police of the attack and kidnappings.
The Associated Press said that the abductors were wearing camouflage uniforms and that they arrived in seven vehicles, including several white SUVs. Reuters reported that they were dressed as police commandos and that they arrived in at least 10 vehicles.
Local security contractors, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested that police may have raided the security firm because of licensing violations. But Interior Ministry officials said that they had no information of any operations in the area and that an investigation of the incident had been ordered.
In other violence in the capital, the bodies of five men, their hands tied in front and each fatally shot, were found Wednesday morning in Kasraw Atash, an industrial area in northeastern Baghdad, police said. The bodies were discovered in a shallow hole away from the main streets, according to an official in the Baghdad police operations room who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Later, seven people were killed and five were injured when a car bomb exploded next to a police patrol in the Habibiya neighborhood of eastern Baghdad. In another explosion, two boys, both about 11, were reportedly killed by a roadside bomb that was targeting a U.S. military convoy in the northern outskirts of the city. The boys were selling gasoline on the side of the road, according to the Associated Press.
And an Iraqi man died when his car crashed into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in eastern Baghdad, according to a U.S. military statement. It said the man had "failed to obey traffic warnings to stop his vehicle."
Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military reported that an American soldier and four comrades were injured Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded alongside their patrol near the northern city of Tall Afar. Separately on Tuesday, the Defense Department said a Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Logistics Group was killed in western Anbar province.
Four civilians, meanwhile, were killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb Wednesday in Fallujah, about 35 miles west of the capital. A police officer was killed when a bomb he was trying to defuse exploded northeast of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. A group of masked gunmen stopped a car in the center of Baqubah shortly after noon and killed the two men inside, local police said.
Special correspondent Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.