Search Is On For Abducted Americans

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A massive search and rescue operation is under way in southern Iraq for five Western security contractors taken hostage on Thursday. Four Americans and an Austrian were taken on Thursday when a convoy they were guarding was hijacked. Several Iraqis and other nationals who were also kidnapped during the hijack were released within a few hours. AP reports that British ground troops and U.S. helicopters fought gunmen in an area near where the kidnappings occurred, and that the Austrian hostage was found dead and that one of the Americans was gravely wounded.

A Kidnapping in the Ministry

AUDIO: The numbers kidnapped and freed remain unclear, but a raid on the Higher Education ministry highlights the security crisis in the heart of Iraq's capital. TIME's Bobby Ghosh reports from Baghdad.

Iraqi government sources blame Shi’ite militias for the snatch, which took place around 20 miles south of Basra.

Hijackings and kidnappings are commonplace in much of Iraq, especially in Baghdad and the southern provinces, which are governed by Shi’ite parties. Armed militias maintained by these parties often conduct criminal activities under the immunity provided by their political patrons. Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped by the militias; many hostages are brutally tortured and murdered.

But unlike the Sunni insurgent and jihadi groups that operate in Western Iraq, the Shi'ite militias rarely kidnap foreigners. Most of the Americans and Europeans who have been captured by such militias have been released within a few days. However, anti-American sentiment has been mounting among the Shi’ites, who accuse the U.S. of bias toward the Sunnis and of actively undermining the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In recent months, there has also been widespread anger at the actions of foreign private security firms, some of which have been known to mistreat Iraqis. Last week police in Nassiriya province arrested four foreign security men working for a British contractor after they fired on a police checkpoint.

The convoy hijacked today was on its way to Nassiriyah from Kuwait, on a route usually used by U.S. military convoys. It had got only 15 miles into Iraq when the hijackers struck, near the town of Safwan at 1 p.m. local time. Some reports say the convoy was stopped at a fake checkpoint set up by the hijackers, who were wearing police uniforms. There are conflicting reports on the number of attackers, but it would appear that there was an exchange of fire between the hijackers and the security personnel guarding the convoy. Several of the trucks in the convoy were also taken.

After the hijacking, British forces in Basra stepped up security operations in the city, suggesting the kidnappers may have taken their hostages there. On Friday, British and U.S. ground troops and helicopters searched an area south of Basra for gunmen who had in previous days attacked coalition forces. There was at least one major firefight between gunmen and the troops, in which five of the gunmen were killed. It is not clear if the gunmen were connected to the hijacking of the convoy.