Shiite Militia Behind Baghdad Kidnapping
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For the second time in two weeks, gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms have stormed buildings in Baghdad's upscale Karradah neighborhood and kidnapped dozens of Iraqis. Both times, Iraqi police officials say they had nothing to do with it. In the past, those who have been taken in these kidnappings have ended up dead. Yesterday, it was a daring daylight raid of two offices where 26 people were kidnapped. NPR has been able to link the attack to Shiite militia.
John Hendren has our story from Baghdad.
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
The Monday raid was especially brazen, even by Baghdad standards. According to an Interior Ministry official who asked NPR to withhold his name, a convoy of five GMC pickups with the official markings of the Iraqi special police commandos pulled up outside the Al Rawi(ph) Mobile Phone Company shortly after noon. They were joined by three-unmarked GMC four-by-fours and two Toyota Land Cruisers. Armed men - some wearing the camouflaged uniforms of Iraq's special police, others dressed in black - then stormed the building.
Without warrants and apparently choosing abductees at random, the official says they kidnapped 14 people and took them and an untold some of money. The gunmen then attacked a nearby-unmarked concrete and glass building, the Baghdad headquarters of the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The business group is working to boost private and foreign investment in Iraq, and it doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts. Nine employees of the chamber were abducted along with a security guard and the director, Rod Omar - an Iraqi who lived in the United States for more than 20 years.
The entire operation took less than 20 minutes. Not a shot was fired. Iraqi police sources say a reporter for the al-Arabiya Arab language News Network and a cameraman who were interviewing Omar at the time were also kidnapped. The female reporter was later released.
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HENDREN: Today, the scene outside the site of the abductions remain tense. Uniformed and plainclothes Iraqi police could be seen in the streets. Witnesses of yesterday's raid refused to talk on tape in front of the police, fearing that more people would be taken. But two witnesses tell NPR that the kidnappers appeared to members of Iraq's special police brigade.
Abductions by men in police uniforms without warrants have become an increasingly familiar scene in the Iraqi capital. Baghdad has become the central battleground for sectarian warfare between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Often it's unclear whether the abductions are kidnappings or legitimate arrests.
Monday's kidnapping raids appeared to illustrate a second wrinkle within the sectarian war, a secondary battle between Shiite militias. In a series of interviews with Iraqi police officials - who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals - NPR has learned that the raid yesterday was carried out by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that senior U.S. military officials describe as the most powerful militia involved in sectarian warfare. It has a violent past. It operates within the police and the army. And it has a powerful leader, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The link to the militia was confirmed by a high-ranking member of the Mahdi Army, who also requested anonymity because of the danger of disclosing militia operations.
The Karradah neighborhood where the raid took place is under the political control of the Badr Brigade, another militia group also widely said to run death squads. It's controlled by the largest Shiite political party in Iraq. The Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army often find themselves fighting one another in local turf battles. If the abductions are not part of a turf battle between the rival Shiite groups, police officials say it is something even more dangerous: a new level of cooperation among them.
Militias are among the main reasons Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has launched the second phase of a Baghdad security plan that begins today. Speaking to NPR before the incidents of the last two days, U.S. Central Command chief, General John Abizaid, said the Shiite militias in general are cynically seeking to boost their political power.
General JOHN ABIZAID (Chief, U.S. Central Command): On the Shia side, there are certain extremist groups that propel their agenda forward. And their agenda means no power sharing whatsoever and no reconciliation, and establishing their own dark Shia view of the government of Iraq.
HENDREN: The Baghdad morgue tallies the toll of daily sectarian violence - 55 yesterday and more than 50 today, most of them unidentified. That's the shorthand they've developed for victims of sectarian assassination who show up with a single bullet wound to the head and often signs of torture.
John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.