BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) – Gunmen in military uniforms kidnapped dozens of people Thursday from a major commercial area in central Baghdad, the second mass abduction in the capital in a month.
The attackers drove up to the busy al-Sanak area in about 10 sport utility vehicles and began rounding up shop owners and bystanders. Two police officers said 50 to 70 people were abducted.
The al-Sanak area — one of the capital’s main commercial districts — holds stores selling auto spare parts, agricultural equipment and the small power generators that are ubiquitous in Baghdad due to severe power shortages.
The stores are owned by a mix of Shiites, Sunnis and others and it was not immediately clear why the area was targeted. But suspicion fell on militias, which are believed to have infiltrated police forces and have killed hundreds in sectarian violence, personal vendettas and kidnappings for ransom.
After victims in previous mass kidnappings were rounded up, the culprits those belonging to one or the other Islamic sect.
Mohammed Qassim Jassim, a 37-year-old owner of a clothes store in the area, said the attack started about 11 a.m.
“We heard cars and shootings in the area and then we saw gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms and driving SUVs who were snatching people from the shops and street. It took like 20 minutes for them to fan out and control the area.”
Iraqi security forces sealed off the area and were interviewing witnesses, while panicked store owners closed their shops and fled the area.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry, which oversees the army, said the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, is in charge of the area, but stressed the difficulties in controlling the distribution of uniforms.
“Anyone can buy military or police uniforms from the market although we have issued orders to confiscate these uniforms and punish the owners,” spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said. “This issue (uniforms) can’t be controlled as each soldier has more than one uniform.”
AP Television News footage showed boarded and locked store fronts with the blue dome of a Shiite mosque in the background. Few people were on the street of what is usually a bustling area.
Meanwhile, officers were on high alert Thursday after receiving tips that militants were moving bombs into the Shiite Sadr City slum.
A car bomb killed two policemen who were trying to defuse it in Sadr City Wednesday night.
Four civilians were wounded in the blast at 11:30 p.m. on al-Fallah St. in the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad, police Capt. Mohammed Ismail said. He said explosives experts successfully defused a second car bomb in the same area.
Another police officer said authorities had stepped up security in Sadr City after receiving tips that 10 car bombs had entered the area and militants were trying to smuggle more in.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the number of police patrols and checkpoints had been increased and police were intensifying searches of cars entering the district.
The Interior Ministry confirmed that it had received tips about car bombs aimed at Sadr City from people calling into a terror hot line.
Sadr City, which houses some 2.5 million people, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia that is loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and has been blamed in some of the country’s worst sectarian violence.
Elsewhere in the capital Thursday, gunmen stormed a boys’ school in the southwestern Alam neighborhood, killing a Shiite guard, police said.
Two mortar shells also landed on a rural area on the edge of the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Dora in southern Baghdad, wounding three people and causing a huge fire, police said.
The capital has seen a series of attacks since a Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a cycle of retaliatory violence between the majority sect and disaffected Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein but lost power with his ouster.
On Nov. 14, suspected Shiite militiamen in Interior Ministry commando uniforms abducted scores of men from an office that handles academic grants and exchanges for the Higher Education, which is predominantly Sunni Arab. Several of those kidnap victims apparently were later released, although there were conflicting accounts about how many people were involved.
Many victims of other past kidnappings have been found among the dozens of bullet-riddled bodies that turn up daily on the streets of Baghdad, often bearings the signs of torture.