30 at Sports Meeting In Iraq Are Abducted

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

BAGHDAD, July 15 -- The security guard at the Oil Ministry Cultural Center was bending down to kneel for midday prayer Saturday when someone behind him said, "Turn around and do not move."

The guard, Yasin Ibrahim Mustafa, turned to face the barrel of an AK-47, held by a man wearing an Iraqi police commando uniform. The man told Mustafa to stay in the guard room, then walked into the center in downtown Baghdad and joined dozens of other gunmen in the kidnapping of the head of Iraq's Olympic Committee and more than 30 other people who were attending a sports conference, police and witnesses said.

The daytime abduction was the latest in a series of mass kidnappings in Iraq, including the capture of 15 members of the country's taekwondo team in May. The raid worsened fears that gunmen impersonating or collaborating with Iraqi security forces are operating freely in the capital. When the kidnappers entered the cultural center Saturday, bodyguards for the Olympic officials saluted them, assuming they were police officers, Mustafa and other security guards said.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani denied that police were involved in the kidnapping.

The gunmen arrived at the center in 10 to 12 vehicles, including several white sport utility vehicles, burst into the conference center, handcuffed participants, marched them into the vehicles and sped away, according to guards and other Iraqi sports officials. The victims included the chairman of the Olympic Committee, Ahmed al-Hijiya, as well as the president of the taekwondo federation, several guards and journalists covering the conference, authorities said. Seven bodyguards were handcuffed to one another and left behind in the courtyard of the cultural center, guards said.

"We were on the edge of death," said Mustafa, 63. "We almost died."

An official with the Iraqi Soccer Federation, Laith Abureem, said he did not know the motive for the kidnappings, which took less than an hour to carry out.

Mohanned Moied, an Olympic Committee guard who was briefed on the kidnapping by people at the conference, said that Hijiya's guards and the kidnappers exchanged gunfire inside the building and that one of the guards was killed and two others were wounded.

In recent months, sports teams and officials have been targets in the ongoing violence engulfing Iraq. The taekwondo team members were kidnapped May 17 while driving across western Iraq after a competition in Jordan. Later that month, gunmen killed the coach of the national tennis team and two of his players in western Baghdad. The attackers in that incident reportedly were religious extremists angry that the men were wearing shorts.

And Thursday, the coach of the national wrestling team was shot dead in an apparent abduction attempt in Baghdad, forcing his team to pull out of a tournament in the United Arab Emirates.

"We don't understand why they are doing this to us," Abureem said.

Meanwhile, two U.S. servicemen were killed in separate bombings in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. One of the soldiers, a member of the 49th Military Police Brigade, was killed in the morning while driving through the Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City, in northeastern Baghdad. More than four hours later, a bomb killed a soldier in the southern part of the capital.

The soldiers' names were being withheld pending notification of their families.

In central Baghdad, a car bomb targeting a police checkpoint killed five people, including two police officers, and wounded six others, said Maj. Gen. Hasan Salman of the Interior Ministry. Later, two roadside bombs exploded in the Saidiya neighborhood of western Baghdad, killing three people and wounding five others, he said.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a bomb detonated in an Internet cafe, killing two people, including the shop's owner, the Kirkuk police said.

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

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