What happened yesterday in central Baghdad borders on the farcical.
Up to 80 gunmen, dressed in camouflaged Interior Ministry uniforms in dozens of unmarked four wheel-drive vehicles and pickup trucks with tinted glass, surrounded and blocked all roads leading to the Directorate of Scholarships and Cultural Relations at Andalus Square at 9:30 a.m., Wednesday.
They stormed the four-story building, claiming they were clearing it to prepare for a visit of U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. But once inside they cocked their weapons and shouted at everyone to stay where they were. In what appeared to be a carefully planned operation, the whole thing took less than 15 minutes. Men were seperated from women, and the women locked up in a room and their cell phones were confiscated. IDs were checked to determine sectarian background and then between 50 to 100 men were hauled off into the pickup trucks. Eyewitnesses said they moved across the Mohammed Al-Qasim highway and passed several checkpoints by Shaab Stadium and the Interior Ministry heading to eastern Baghdad, most likely to Sadr City.
Most of the abducted were employees of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research but many were also academics and students visiting the directorate to apply for scholarships abroad. Even a delivery boy outside the building was not spared. The hostages were of mixed sectarian background, but probably because in a few cases it is hard to determine sect from an ID. Eyewitnesses claim the gunmen spoke in southern Iraqi accent, indicating that they were Shi'ite and probably from Sadr City.
The ministry of Higher Education is controlled by the Sunni Accord front. Abd Dhiyab Al-Ijaili, the minister, is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has been highly vocal against the crimes of Shi'ite militias.
Later in the day, Tuesday, one of the released hostages posted on an Iraqi message board and said that he was asked by the gunmen whether he was Sunni or Shia because they were not quite sure about his surname. "I'm a Muslim," he replied. "La tit'aiqal," they told him, meaning 'don't be a smart aleck.' He then told them he is Shia, so they tested him with certain religious questions that supposedly only a Shi'ite can answer. He passed the test and was hurled on the Army Canal highway, just before Sadr City.
Mass abductions are not unusual in Baghdad and have increased after the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra last February. It is a tactic favoured by both Sunni and Shi'ite gunmen, except that the latter usually conduct their raids in broad daylight in police vehicles and move freely with no resistance from security forces, because they are supposed to be part of it. Yesterday's incident is the most dramatic yet, and tells volumes of the loyalties of Iraqi security forces recruited by the U.S.
The following graphic summarises the most notable incidents over the last few months:
It has been speculated that today's raid was possibly in retribution to another mass kidnapping that took place three days ago south of Baghdad, between Latifiya and Yousifiya. About 50 Shi'ites from Diwaniya, travelling to Baghdad, were snatched by masked gunmen and about 10 were killed on the spot. The gunmen, most likely Sunni insurgents, took them in the direction of Hor Rijab, a vast rural area sandwitched between Dora and Mahmoudiya.
Maliki was quick to downplay today's incident, describing it as "not terrorism but the result of a conflict between militias belonging to this side or that." Iraqiya state television later, adding its own spin on the incident, reported falsely that most of the hostages were freed. Interior Ministry officials and a government spokesman also stated Wednesday morning that most of the kidnapped employees were released, but they gave conflicting numbers. Relatives of kidnapped employees and visitors, however, claim that many are still missing.
He was also quick to find a scapegoat; five police commanders responsible for the Karrada district were arrested for possible involvement. But the Karrada district is in fact under the control of the Badr Brigade, and the police and army force deployed in that area is just for show. Murals of Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim adourn the streets, and a main street in Jadiriya, south of Karrada was renamed to Badr Street. Hakim himself lives at Tariq Aziz' former mansion on Jadiriya's riverside.
The Minister of Higher Education suggested that universities close down, because such an incident may be repeated. He later retracted though and said that students should go to school as usual, reportedly after receiving assurance from Interior and Defense Ministry officals that they would provide extra protection for universities. Yes, I'm just sure Iraqi students and professors feel much safer now.
Very few students turned up for school this morning. My brother Nabil stayed home. I have been looking into solutions to get him out of Iraq as soon as possible because I don't want him to suddenly end up any moment as a tattered corpse on the outskirts of Sadr City with drill holes in his head just because of what his ID says. I would be forever in debt to anyone who can assist me with this.
UPDATE: (Thursday 9:51 a.m.) It's confirmed; nearly 80 hostages are still being held, despite the government's claims that almost all have been released.