BAGHDAD, Iraq—One day after five Britons were snatched in broad daylight from a government building by men operating under the cover of a police squadron, the capital was left Wednesday trying to grasp how another bold abduction could be carried off without a shot fired.
Despite a massive search operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces, there was no sign of the missing Britons.
Iraqi authorities arrested a number of security guards who stood by while dozens of gunmen went into the Finance Ministry office near the slums of Sadr City and demanded, "Where are the foreigners?"
Iraqi political factions traded recriminations over how the foreigners could be walked out of their workplace and driven off in sport-utility vehicles, which appeared to have been commandeered from Iraqi police. Adding to the confusion, a top aide at the Iraqi Finance Ministry said the Westerners, one economic adviser who was contracted by the U.S. government and four security guards hired by his firm, were in a place they'd been warned not to go.
No group claimed responsibility for the abduction.
The abductors struck shortly before noon Tuesday, bursting into two British consultants' lecture on information technology, a senior Finance Ministry official said. The official said at least one of the Britons evaded the intruders and avoided abduction.
The apparent sophistication of the plot fed speculation that central government or police officials had eased the way for the 40 or so kidnappers, who arrived in about 10 vehicles and carried authentic-looking paperwork.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari noted long-standing suspicions that sectarian militia members had infiltrated security forces, and the scale of Tuesday's operation suggested the attackers had used inside connections to carry out their plot.
"This was a . . . calculated, organized operation, and a sophisticated one," Zebari said. "It has all the hallmarks of a strong militia."
Sixteen government guards were on duty during the kidnapping and did nothing to stop it. Several of those guards were arrested Wednesday, although it was unclear how many were detained for failing to thwart the kidnapping.
"It's a sensitive government building and there was no resistance," Zebari said. "That's why one is suspicious. The location of the building gives you an indication, because not everyone can operate there except for certain people," he said, referring to Sadr City, a stronghold for the Mahdi Army, the biggest Shiite militia.
Both U.S. and Iraqi troops moved through Sadr City Wednesday on multiple operations in what appeared to be further signs that the militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was involved. But the U.S. military made no public accusations.
"We are providing support as required in support of the search," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces. "We're asking questions."
A senior finance ministry official, who wasn't permitted to speak for attribution, said the Westerners had been warned not to leave the main ministry building.
"They disobeyed orders from the minister," he said.
The raid resembled one carried out Nov. 14 by Shiite militia members who donned the clothing of Interior Ministry special forces, charged into the Higher Education Ministry and marched out as many as 200 workers. Dozens of those kidnapped remain missing.
Mahdi Army forces, who received training and arms in Iran, according to U.S. military officials, have been widely blamed for a January attack in the holy city of Karbala and the abduction and execution of four American soldiers. The abductors in that attack spoke English and wore U.S. military uniforms.
In the past, when the Mahdi Army took Western civilians, it would later released its hostages.
Sadrists rejected suggestions that they played a role in the Britons' disappearance, and they lashed out at Zebari for hinting that they were responsible.
"He shouldn't talk this way about the national front that defends him and all Iraqis," said Amir al-Husseini, an influential member of the Sadr movement. "The British are part of the occupation force in Iraq, and it's possible that they will be killed or kidnapped, but this is not our policy, and kidnapping is not one of our principles."
Questions also were raised about Finance Minister Bayan Jabr, a former leader of the rival Iranian-backed Badr militia, the armed wing of the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. During Jabr's time as interior minister, that agency was dogged by allegations that Shiite religious militiamen had infiltrated the country's police force and formed police death squads to target Sunnis.
The abducted Britons were in Iraq under contract with the U.S. government.
The U.S. Agency for International Development contracted with BearingPoint, a McLean, Va., consulting firm, to provide economic and governing advice to the young Iraqi regime. That company confirmed Wednesday that one of its employees was kidnapped in the Tuesday raid.
BearingPoint, in turn, had contracted with GardaWorld, a Montreal, Canada-based security firm that recently purchased Kroll Security International. Kroll had held the security contract for the British Embassy, for BearingPoint and for other Western agencies operating in Iraq. It employs large numbers of people who have served in the British military. GardaWorld confirmed that four of its workers went missing in the incident. It wouldn't say if there were other GardaWorld employees at the site or if they were there to protect anyone other than the BearingPoint worker who was kidnapped.
British troops supported an Iraqi army special forces squad that last week killed the Mahdi Army's top Basra-area commander and another militia officer when attempting to arrest them.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.