Mass Abduction Highlights Iraqi Security Crisis

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An Iraqi security guard tours an Iraqi Higher Education building where some 100 government employees and visitors were kidnapped on November 14, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Even by Baghdad standards, it was an incredibly brazen snatch. In broad daylight Tuesday morning, armed men wearing police-commando uniforms kidnapped more than 100 people from the research directorate of the Ministry of Higher Education. Eyewitnesses said the kidnappers arrived in a fleet of dozens of trucks with government markings, and took barely 15 minutes to complete what was obviously a carefully planned operation. They rounded up the directorate's employees, then locked all the women in one room before taking away the men.

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The Iraqi government announced it had sacked five police commanders as a response to the kidnapping, but it was not immediately clear whether the commanders were being punished for negligence or criminality.

Higher Education Minister Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili ordered all of Iraq's universities closed, saying he doesn't want to endanger any more of his staff. Speaking on state TV, he blamed the kidnapping on "criminals and terrorists" and accused them of "targeting higher education to empty it."

The kidnapping was another blow to Iraq's post-Saddam education system, which has already been undermined by the murder of over 180 professors and the emigration of over 3,000 others. In recent weeks, prominent academics have been killed in Baghdad.

Suspicion over Tuesday's kidnapping immediately fell on the Shi'ite militias who have waged a massive campaign of sectarian kidnapping and murder. The kidnap bore many of the hallmarks of a militia operation, including the use of military uniforms and the targeting of Sunnis. Al-Ujaili is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni organization, and some Shi'ites have accused him of filling his department with cosectarians. It is common for Iraqi ministries to recruit mainly from the sect of the minister concerned.

"There are Sunni ministries and Shi'ite ministres, and ours is known as a Sunni ministry," said one department official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with journalists. "I'm not surprised we were hit, but I never expected it would be such a big operation." The minister said both Sunni and Shi'ites were taken in the raid. Unconfirmed reports said around a dozen were released later in the day.

In the Karrada neighborhood, where the research directorate is located, residents said the scale of the kidnapping suggested collusion — perhaps even participation — by real policemen. "How can you kidnap 100 people in the middle of the city and not be caught at a checkpoint?" said Raed Hussein, a shop assistant who works not far from the directorate. "The only way you can get away with this is if you have the support of the police." There are hundreds of police checkpoints in the Iraqi capital, and it is almost impossible to travel more than a mile without having to pass one.