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.
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.