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uniformed gunmen kidnap 150 in Iraq
Something is very wrong in Babylon.
The proceedings of the Iraqi parliament were halted in shock this morning by reports that as many as 150 people were abducted from the offices of the Higher Education Ministry in central Baghdad.
A convoy of around 40 new, camouflaged pick-up vehicles was seen surrounding two buildings of the ministry's Scientific Research Directorate in Karradah, a religiously-mixed neighbourhood, at around 9:30am local time this morning.
Gunmen dressed as police commandos were then [seen] lining up a crowd of men in the car park of the Sunni-led ministry, handcuffing them and leading them away.
A civil servant who happened to be in the bank at the time of the raid watched as the gunmen searched the victims' identity cards, sorting Sunnis from Shias.
Who has the kind of money to command a fleet of new cars and have access to all these uniforms?
Certainly, not insurgents.
This was, without doubt, orchestrated by a state.
"They were checking identity cards in the car park. They picked only the Sunni employees. They even took the man who was just delivering tea," the witnesss, a Sunni himself, told Reuters.
"They gathered them all in the pick-ups. At the same time, I saw two police patrols watching, doing nothing."
Alaa Makki, the head of the parliamentary education committee, interrupted a televised session of parliament to break the news to Iraqi leaders.
He called on the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the leaders of the Defence and Interior ministries to respond urgently to a "national catastrophe".
If early reports are accurate, the kidnapping would be the largest of its kind in the war so far.
The Higher Education Minister, Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest group of Sunni MPs, then said his ministry had suffered sectarian threats before and that he had asked for more protection from the Government.
"This morning a large force arrived with many vehicles with tinted windows claiming to be police commandos and they clashed with the guards and then entered the building and snatched all the employees and some visitors," he told Iraqi state television this morning.
Mr al-Ujaili said the gunmen appeared to have little difficulty gaining control of two buildings in a district of Baghdad normally well patrolled by the security forces:
"Last week I demanded from both the Interior and Defence ministries to provide security for universities and the ministry building... There have been terrorist threats before."
Witnesses said gunmen dressed in the uniforms of the Iraqi Interior Ministry and driving government vehicles closed streets and set up roadblocks as they raided the offices.
A spokeswoman at the Higher Education Ministry said the gunmen arrived in new vehicles and stormed the building, ordering female employees into a room, where they took away their mobile phones.
The men, meanwhile, a mixed crowd of employees, guards and visitors to the offices were shackled and led into the convoy of vans.
The mass abduction recalls earlier incidents, including the kidnapping of dozens of members of the Iraqi Chamber of Commerce and the seizing of around 30 people from a meeting of the Iraqi Olympic Committee in July, which have been blamed on Shia militias and death squads operating in the capital.
This was not a rag tag operation - this was VERY well financed.
Kidnappers have been seen before wearing the uniforms of the Interior Ministry, leading to accusations that the Shia-led department has been infiltrated by militias.
A spokesman for the ministry said today a search was on for the perpetrators but declined to estimate how many hostages had been taken:
"All Interior Ministry forces are on alert, searching for this group. We don’t know if it’s terrorists, militias or even government forces."
Adbuctions are depressingly routine in Baghdad, and although many victims are freed and many crimes are perpetrated by criminals simply for financial gain, bodies, bound and tortured, are found on the streets of the city each day.
The majority those taken hostage at the Olympic meeting were released unharmed but several, including the head of the Committee, were never seen again.
Most people don't think that it's possible - but, things are about to get much worse in the Middle East.