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In Brazen Roundup, 56 Vanish From Baghdad

Police Col. Adel Younis said guards at the Ministry of Justice shot at the kidnappers but couldn't stop them. Another witness, Hussein Ali, said he had seen a police car drive up to the scene, only to be driven off by gunfire and shouted warnings from the kidnappers that they were from the Interior Ministry's intelligence section.

Younis said the incident is under investigation. A police major who came on the scene after the attack said the men were not with the Interior Ministry, a witness said.

Raids like this one only increase popular mistrust of the police. Sunni Arabs often accuse the Interior Ministry police, dominated by Shiite Muslims, of conducting a terror campaign against them, or at least looking the other way as Shiite militias associated with political parties do so. But police say the attacks are carried out by criminals wearing police uniforms. At the same time, they counter that Iraq's major insurgent organizations are led by Sunnis and that a tough response is required.

Monday's kidnappings did not appear to be motivated by sectarian rivalry, a witness said. "Among the passengers were Syrian businessmen, about five or six of them," Hasan Falah said. "There were also some passengers from Diwaniyah" -- a predominantly Shiite city south of Baghdad-- "and other parts of Iraq. There was no question of Shiite or Sunni because it was a whole mixture."

That suggested that the people were simply taken for ransom, a lucrative business that has grown rapidly since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein's government in 2003.

A group of Shiite students in a neighborhood of southern Baghdad, kidnapped in another roundup on Monday, did not have the option of paying their way out.

In Abu Dashir, a Shiite neighborhood south of Dora, the volatile southern section of Baghdad, gunmen posing as drivers lined up a set of minibuses as if to offer rides to central Baghdad, a police officer said. Fifteen students from Abu Dashir got aboard.

The drivers and their accomplices killed them -- where the murders happened is unclear -- and threw their bodies off the side of the Dora highway.

Abduction statistics are unreliable because many families do not report crimes, fearing the police as much as they do the kidnapping gangs.

But every so often, kidnappers are brought to justice. On Monday, an Iraqi court sentenced an Iraqi man to life imprisonment in connection with the killing of Margaret Hassan, an Iraqi-British aid worker kidnapped in 2004. It is believed to be Iraq's first trial of a suspect accused of the abduction or murder of a foreign-born civilian since the U.S.-led invasion.

Mustafa Salman, charged with aiding and abetting the abductors, received the sentence a few hours after his trial started, the Reuters news service reported. Two other defendants in the case were freed.

Hassan, originally from Ireland, married an Iraqi engineer and lived in Iraq for more than three decades before becoming an Iraqi citizen. At the time of her kidnapping in October 2004, she headed Iraqi operations for the CARE International charity. She was abducted on her way to work in Baghdad. She was presumed murdered about a month later, after her captors released video messages of her appealing for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Her body has not been found.

Also in Baghdad on Monday, the defense team in the trial of Saddam Hussein protested the arrest of four of its witnesses. Defense attorneys charged that some of them were beaten by Iraqi guards.

The chief judge said they were jailed on suspicion of perjury last week after testifying that they had seen the chief prosecutor offering money and unspecified fake documents in exchange for testimony. One of the witnesses also claimed that some of the 148 Shiites from the town of Dujail who were allegedly killed on Hussein's orders were still alive.

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Omar Fekeiki and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.

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