In Brazen Roundup, 56 Vanish From Baghdad

By Nelson Hernandez and Salih Saif Aldin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 5 -- "Turn back," a friend told Haji Abu Shamaa as he walked Monday morning toward his money-changing shop in the Karkh neighborhood of central Baghdad, a mile north of the heavily guarded Green Zone. "The Interior Ministry police are rounding up people."

But Shamaa walked on, right into a swift, coordinated operation unfolding within sight of Iraq's Ministry of Justice. Gunmen in police uniforms and ski masks had cordoned off the street and were swiftly shoving captives, four or five at a time, into a dozen waiting pickup trucks. Fifteen minutes later, the trucks were gone, and so were 56 people.

The roundup displayed all the signs of an unrelenting kidnapping epidemic in Baghdad. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, more than 400 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq, but thousands more Iraqis have been snatched from the streets, often by people wearing knockoff police uniforms that are easily purchased at local markets.

Many people, like Shamaa's friend, believe the kidnappers are actually police. Usually the hostages are held for ransom. Sometimes they are killed because of their faith or ethnicity.

The fate of the 56 people was unknown Monday night. But the scale and audacity of the operation were unusual even by the capital's lawless standards.

The gunmen seized workers from several bus companies that offer transport to Syria and Jordan, witnesses and police said. Others of those taken were passengers aboard the buses: Syrian businessmen going home, a handful of Palestinians, Iraqis. Many Iraqis are leaving their own country precisely because it is the sort of place where a trip to the bus stop can end with being led away at gunpoint.

Shamaa said he was intent on returning to his office, to rejoin his son, Alaa, and thought the police wouldn't arrest him -- he hadn't done anything wrong, he reasoned. Then he saw a dozen pickup trucks, two of them with machine guns mounted in their beds, and none with any license plates.

A man in a camouflage police uniform and a ski mask -- an article commonly worn by police in Baghdad-- stopped Shamaa, saying he would shoot him if he didn't turn back.

"I haven't done anything," Shamaa recounted explaining to him. "I just want to go to the bank to get some money, and I'll be gone."

The man let him pass. Shamaa went into the bank and watched the scene unfolding through the window. He said he saw gunmen entering the Mohammed Ugaili Transportation Co. across the street. He saw the owner, Jasim Ugaili, and his son being forced into one of the pickup trucks with the butts of rifles. Shamaa saw his own son, Alaa, with them, his hands tied behind his back.

Shamaa rushed outside to save his son. Another man with a rifle blocked his way.

"What, do you want to join him?" the man threatened. Shamaa turned back. And the trucks drove off.

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