BAGHDAD -- Signs of the abduction were everywhere. A splatter of blood smeared on the gray floor. A black telephone, yanked out of its socket, tangled in a mess of cords. The dirt outlines of boot prints on a door the kidnappers kicked. And at the receptionist desk, next to a pile of papers, a single pink rose, abandoned in the chaos.
This was the scene yesterday at an Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education building, one hour after a small army of 80 gunmen, dressed in police uniforms, staged a swift, brazen daylight raid, seizing scores of employees and visitors.
It was one of the largest mass abductions since the US-led invasion in 2003, startling even by the standards of a nation reeling from sectarian strife, daily bombings, and death squads. The last high-profile mass kidnapping occurred in July, when gunmen seized more than 30 people from an Iraqi Olympics Committee meeting. Six were later released, but the fate of the rest is still unknown.
Yesterday's abductions were a well-orchestrated reminder of how challenging basic security remains in Iraq at a time when US officials are pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to assert more control. The abductions occurred on a day when at least 117 people were killed in car bombings, clashes, and other violence around the country.
Estimates of the number of kidnap victims varied widely. The prime minister's office said about 50 employees were abducted, but the Ministry of Higher Education said as many as 150 employees and visitors were taken.
Early this morning, an Interior Ministry spokesman said a joint Iraqi police and army operation had secured the release of more than 30 of the kidnap victims. "The operation is still running, the number is still changing," said Brigadier General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the spokesman.
Five senior police officials, including the police chief and four high-ranking deputies in the Karrada neighborhood where the abductions took place, had been arrested by last evening. Politicians were branding the kidnappings "a national catastrophe" and a loss of credibility for Iraq.
The kidnapping unfolded at around 10:30 a.m., when gunmen arrived in a convoy of 25 to 30 blue-and-yellow police cars and pickup trucks, some mounted with machine guns. All drove without license plates, said witnesses. The gunmen wore neither hoods nor masks. They clutched police-issued weapons such as Glock pistols, witnesses said.
Some fired their guns in the air, ordering pedestrians off the street. The US ambassador was coming, witnesses heard the gunmen yelling, and they were there to provide security and clear the path.
"They told me to get inside," said Hadi Karim, a carpenter who was working in an office across the street. "I had to close the door or they would shoot me."
Then the official-looking convoy sped past the lone guard at the security gate, who did not offer any resistance, past a set of 30-foot blast walls, and entered the parking lot of the building. It houses the Higher Education Ministry's scholarship and cultural relations directorate, an agency responsible for granting scholarships to Iraqi professors and students applying to study abroad.
The gunmen stormed through the entrance. One walked up to a receptionist and said the men were from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said Basil al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry, who said he had spoken with the receptionist. "Those who came were not like other attackers, thieves, or looters," he added. "They came in an official way."
The gunmen speedily weeded out the men from the women. The women were taken to a room and locked up, witnesses said. The men were pushed into the trucks and driven away. The kidnapped included employees and visitors to the agency, janitors, and PhDs, even a deputy general director of the agency. Some were blindfolded and tossed into the backs of pickup trucks, said witnesses.
They included Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims, Kurds and Christians, suggesting that the kidnappers might not be connected with the sectarian violence that is ravaging Iraq.
"They took everyone -- Sunnis and Shi'ites," said Hussam Yassin, a goateed man in his 20s and a Higher Education Ministry employee whose two cousins, both engineers, were among those abducted.
Still, it was unclear last night whether the gunmen were members of the police or impostors. Militias associated with religious groups have been widely seen as fomenting the sectarian violence gripping the country, and Shi'ite militias are believed to have infiltrated the Shi'ite-dominated police force, which Sunnis have long accused of conducting mass abductions.
The minister of higher education is a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament. At the same time, Karrada is increasingly becoming a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the militia linked to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. And the dominant Shi'ite religious party in government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also has an armed wing, the Badr Organization, that is known to have strong links within the police.
Yesterday, in a televised meeting with President Jalal Talabani, Maliki appeared to imply that the kidnappings might be linked to militia rivalries. "What is happening is not terrorism, but the result of disagreements and conflict between militias belonging to this side or that," Maliki said.
If the kidnappings were militia-related, it would underscore Maliki's inability to disarm the armed groups and could erode his relationship with US officials who have been pressuring Maliki to take tougher action against the militias.
The kidnappings were the latest to target academics and a blow to efforts to keep members of Iraq's trained middle class from fleeing the country. Last month, within the same week, gunmen assassinated a Sunni professor and the Shi'ite dean of Baghdad University's economics department.
At the ministry building, dozens of relatives of the kidnap victims had converged at the security gate. Some were openly wailing, others stood solemnly. They were Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Christians seeking answers for the disappearance of their sons, brothers and cousins.
One angry Shi'ite man yelled at police officials investigating the scene: "Now you will say the militias did this. You will never be brave enough to say policemen did this."
Crouched against a wall, Jindeel Hassan was crying. His brother, Ali, was one of those kidnapped. Hassan said that his brother told him one month ago that the agency had received a threat letter. "They are all clean people there," explained Hassan. "There are Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, Christians, all educated people, working together."
"It's a big crime. I feel sadness, suffering, torture," Hassan added, directing his words at those who abducted Ali: "You leave the American occupiers, and you come and kill your country's sons?"