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50 Workers Seized From Baghdad Security Firm

Times Staff Writer

Uniformed gunmen Wednesday swarmed a private security company and took away all 50 employees, a mysterious raid that highlighted the lawlessness in the Iraqi capital.

At least 10 armored pickup trucks pulled up to Al Rawafid security company in the afternoon. The vehicles had no license plates, which is unusual in Iraq. Bands of men stormed into the building and seized everyone inside, along with an undisclosed amount of cash from the company’s safe, police sources said. Witnesses said the employees were bundled into the waiting trucks and driven away. There was no word on their fate.

In a city where the lines between militias and Iraqi security forces have become increasingly blurred, it was unclear whether the operation was a mass kidnapping or an extrajudicial seizure by renegade police.

Speaking with news services, top officials at the Interior Ministry denied any involvement. But other sources in the ministry, which is responsible for the nation’s police forces, said the gunmen were commandos with the ministry’s Major Crimes Division. Hours after the security company employees were taken, U.S. military spokesmen and U.S. officials assigned to work with Iraqi police were still mystified over the incident.

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The U.S. Embassy has identified police training as the most important step toward pacifying Iraq and has declared 2006 “the year of the police.”

The security company, located on the main road of Baghdad’s mixed Shiite-Sunni Arab neighborhood of Zayouna, is among numerous security firms that cropped up after the U.S.-led invasion nearly three years ago. Many of the guards employed by Al Rawafid are former soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, news reports said. The firm holds a lucrative contract to protect employees of Iraqna, the country’s major cellphone provider, police sources said.

The incident at the security company unfolded against a backdrop of brazen violence. Bodies of Sunni Muslim men are found almost daily, usually handcuffed and bearing marks of torture. Gunmen and militias have the run of the streets.

Hours earlier, the bodies of 18 men, young and old, were found stuffed into an abandoned truck near a bus depot in a predominantly Sunni area of western Baghdad. The victims were handcuffed and bore bruises and burns. Some appeared to have been hanged; a few had been shot. The Baghdad morgue identified some of the men as members of a Sunni tribe from western Iraq.

As the day wore on, six more bodies turned up around the capital, authorities said. Such discoveries have become a morbid, but everyday, facet of life in Iraq. Many of those kidnapped and killed are victims of a bloody power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, the two major Muslim sects.

Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under Hussein. But with his ouster, Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority is taking a dominant role in the government, and many Sunnis have found themselves dispossessed.

Sunnis complain that renegade units of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry have been stalking their neighborhoods and allowing militias to infiltrate police forces in preparation for a possible civil war. Investigations of the ministry have turned up at least one torture chamber, and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite political appointee with ties to the Badr Brigade militia, has been accused by many Sunnis of allowing death squads to form and operate under the cover of official security forces.

Jabr on Wednesday escaped an apparent assassination attempt when his convoy struck a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad, a source at the ministry said. The minister was not in his car at the time; his drivers had ventured out to fill up with gasoline. Two employees were killed, and five were injured.

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The death toll grew as roadside bombs exploded across the country. Two young Iraqi boys were killed Wednesday by a bomb intended for a U.S. patrol. The boys were selling gasoline, according to news reports. In north Baghdad, two policemen were killed and two people injured in another bomb explosion.

The U.S. military announced that a U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday by a roadside bomb while patrolling near Mosul, in the north. Four soldiers were wounded in the blast.

On Tuesday night, a cleric who serves as an official with the Culture Ministry was shot to death in Baghdad. Although his sect was not known, Akram Alazawi belonged to a tribe that is almost entirely Sunni.

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Times special correspondent Asmaa Waguih and staff writer Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.


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