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Gunmen kidnap shopkeepers, bystanders in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Kadhim Mahdi ran a lucrative carpentry business in west Baghdad, but he closed his shop when clashes and car bombs shut down his neighborhood.

Next, he became a grocer—until three other grocers in the area were assassinated. Then he fled without even daring to retrieve his expensive shopping carts and his electrical generator.

Mahdi moved across the Tigris River to east Baghdad six months ago, thinking that his new job selling spare parts for water pumps was so safe that he could even take his 4-year-old son to work with him.

On Thursday morning, however, Mahdi was feeding his son cake at his shop when gunmen dressed in Iraqi police and army uniforms descended on the Sinak district and kidnapped dozens of shopkeepers and bystanders in the latest of a string of mass abductions in Baghdad.

"They were shooting in the air and chasing after the crowds running away," Mahdi said. "My son asked me, `Dad, are we going to die?'"

The brazen attack took place barely a mile from the heavily guarded government compound known as the Green Zone, where Iraqi officials were preparing for a weekend conference on national reconciliation.

The Sinak attack was the most notable incident on a day packed with other violence that reflects the lawlessness that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's beleaguered government appears unable to curb. Police reported the discoveries of 45 bodies in the capital Thursday, 42 in the mainly Sunni Muslim western side and three in the predominantly Shiite Muslim eastern side.

A leading Shiite politician, Adil Abdul Mahdi, escaped an apparent assassination attempt Thursday when gunmen fired on his motorcade in a majority-Sunni neighborhood, police said. Abdul Mahdi, of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is considered a moderate Islamist and a favorite of Washington officials, who've tried unsuccessfully to maneuver him into the prime minister's seat.

At the scene of the mass kidnapping in Sinak, a small industrial area where Iraqis shop for refrigerator motors and power tools, Kadhim Mahdi and three other witnesses said that police at a checkpoint watched as the abductors rounded up 30 to 70 men and stuffed them into 10 or more paddy wagons and other vehicles that Iraqi security forces typically used.

The attack was especially confounding, the witnesses said, because the kidnappers didn't appear to follow a sectarian agenda, seizing Sunnis, Shiites and Christians alike.

"First, they came to a Sunni-owned shop ... they took him and I thought it was because he was a Sunni, but then they turned to the others," said Qahtan, 23, who escaped by hiding in the mud underneath a truck and was too scared to divulge his full name. "The second one was Christian, and he was telling him, `I'm a Christian! I'm a Christian!' One of them answered, `Christian, Shiite, Sunni, you're going to come with us.'"

Qahtan, who sells tools in Sinak, said he saw the gunmen load 30 men into the enclosed police-style vans and other vehicles bearing the camouflage markings of the Iraqi army, then return for others. He said the captives shouted for police to help them but that no one responded.

Another witness, Haider Jassim, 22, said a sniper had shot at passers-by earlier this week from a position near a bridge that leads to the area, so at first he was relieved that the security forces finally had responded. He said he quickly grew dismayed when the forces targeted merchants and began shooting randomly into crowds of people attempting to flee.

"There were two police vehicles, but they did nothing to help people," Jassim said. "On the contrary, they were positioned in a way that blocked the path after the (attackers) fled. ... We don't know who they were, but for sure they'll ask for ransom for some of (those seized), kill some and so on. Like the usual daily incidents."

Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said that as many as 29 of the abductees—all Shiites—were released unharmed Thursday evening. Police gave no information as to how many were kidnapped or who was behind the attack.

"On Saturday, when people come back to their shops, we'll count who is missing and find out the real number taken," Qahtan said. "They'll kill the Sunnis and throw them in a Shiite neighborhood and they'll kill the Shiites and throw them in a Sunni neighborhood after checking their IDs."

Kadhim Mahdi, a Shiite, said he escaped by grabbing his son and running across the street to an apartment building, where residents offered them shelter. He said he cradled his trembling son in his arms and decided that it was time to look for yet another line of work.


(Al Dulaimy is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Special correspondents Zained Obeid and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.