BAGHDAD, Iraq—Shiite militiamen who snatched scores of Iraqis from a government office divided their captives by sect and freed only those who could prove they weren't Sunnis, survivors of the incident said in interviews Sunday.
At least 64 men abducted last week in the brash daylight attack on a scholarship office in Baghdad remained unaccounted for Sunday, and the Sunni minister of higher education repeated a threat to resign unless the Shiite-led government shows progress in tracking down his missing employees.
While there is no news of those still held, Iraqis released after the incident shared chilling stories of torture, shootings and interrogations at the hands of their abductors.
If the kidnappings end badly, and the higher education minister resigns, Iraqi officials fear it could have a domino effect on other Sunni politicians, potentially leading to deeper sectarian turmoil and the collapse of the U.S.-backed unity government.
"If I don't see any progress on this, I'll be forced to take action, including my resignation," Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili, the higher education minister, said in a telephone interview. "It's my responsibility to my people and my employees to show that I am standing beside them on this. What they've experienced is a nightmare."
He said around 150 people were abducted from the office Nov. 14; an estimated 70 have been released. The interior ministry, which initially said only about 40 people were seized, now also confirms the release of about 70 Iraqis.
McClatchy Newspapers reached four of them. All refused to have their names published for fear of retribution from their former captors who, they said, threatened to return for them if they spoke publicly.
"They threatened us and said, `We took you from your ministry so it's not hard for us to take you from your home,'" said one released Shiite man.
Another, who agreed to be identified only as Abu Kadhim, 30, gave a comprehensive account of the attack. He said he was at the scholarship office on a business visit when a convoy of about 30 white Chevrolet trucks and other police vehicles pulled up.
Gunmen in ski masks and police uniforms poured out of the cars and stormed into the lobby of the office, Abu Kadhim said. They told terrified bystanders they were clearing the way for a visiting American official. He said the employees and visitors inside quickly realized it was a ruse and tried to escape.
"All the employees of the directorate were brought downstairs with us and it got crowded. They pointed their guns at us and started pushing us around. We realized something was wrong," he said.
When the crowd in the lobby swelled to about 200, Abu Kadhim said, the attackers began lugging office furniture outside to make room to hold additional ministry personnel seized during sweeps of the upper floors of the four-storey building.
Gunmen handcuffed the employees two by two and made them lie face down on the floor. They fired sporadic shots near the captives' heads to deter them from looking up, Abu Kadhim said. Ringing cell phones were seized and tossed aside.
"They were shouting at people by name," he said. "They knew the building very well, every door and every room."
A straggler was brought down and handcuffed alone. When the man attempted to flee via the basement stairs, Abu Kadhim recounted, one of the gunmen gruffly ordered him killed. A single shot was fired and moans could be heard as the man was dragged back into the lobby.
Then the assailants began loading the abductees into the police vehicles outside. When those quickly filled up, the gunmen crammed the rest into two minibuses. Abu Kadhim said he was shoved into an enclosed white truck with about 20 other Iraqis, including an elderly doctor who begged the other abductees to give him space because he suffered from heart problems.
The gunmen placed strips of beige duct tape across the eyes of each person kidnapped, Abu Kadhim said. With their police sirens blaring, he said, the vehicles set off on a half-hour drive. The trip ended in a residential area, he said, but his blindfold made it impossible to know where.
Abu Kadhim said he heard the sounds of TV sets and children's voices as he and the other captives were led inside.
Abu Kadhim said he adjusted his blindfold enough to make out a new set of militia leaders not in uniform. A man wearing a tracksuit and sandals sifted through the abductees' ID cards and called out names one by one, starting with those identified as high-ranking officials in the scholarship office.
"They started separating us: release/investigate, release/investigate, and so on," Abu Kadhim said. "When he came to me, he said, `investigate.' I asked them, `What is my crime? I was only there for a visit.'
"One guy kicked me in the ribs—I have a broken rib now—and when I asked him why they were being so oppressive, he kicked me again and again every time I spoke. So, I kept quiet."
Those marked for investigation were loaded onto one of the minibuses and taken to another location a short distance away. Interrogations already were under way when Abu Kadhim arrived, he said, and screams could be heard from other rooms.
The captors asked for men whose names were Bakr or Omar, names typically used only by Sunnis, and then led them away.
"They took one man and we heard them asking him if he was Shiite or Sunni and when he said, `Sunni,' we heard them doing something to him," Abu Kadhim said.
"Later, they brought him out and sat him next to me," he continued. "I peeked over at him and his face had gone blue. They had taped his nose and mouth and his mouth was stuffed with cloth or cotton."
When Abu Kadhim's turn came, he said, he was hauled before an interrogator who asked a barrage of questions to determine his sect: name, tribal affiliation and address.
"They asked me whether I am Shiite or Sunni," he said. "I told them I was just a visitor and didn't know anyone in the office. (The interrogator) told the men to put me with the `released' group. He told me, `You are Shiite, what are you doing in this terrorist office?'"
Those to be released, all Shiites, were held in a separate room, Abu Kadhim said. They were given scraps of bread and sips of water, but not allowed to use the bathroom. The next morning, he said, they were loaded into a police van and driven along bumpy roads until they came to a sudden stop.
Abu Kadhim said the group was dumped out, still wearing blindfolds. The gunmen told them not to remove the duct tape until they heard police sirens.
When they were finally free, he said, local residents approached them with water and told them they were in the Shaab district in northern Baghdad.
"The people there told us they thought we were dead bodies because usually such cars dump only bodies there," Abu Kadhim said. "We were afraid to give them any details, so we told them, `No, we're fine. They were just investigating us.'"
He said they walked to a busy street nearby and took taxis home.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.