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Kidnappers free scores of Iraqis; prime minister may be bending to U.S. pressure

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Kidnappers released about 70 people snatched in a mass abduction by suspected Shiite militiamen who answer to a key backer of the prime minister — a sign the militants went too far and Iraq’s leader may be yielding to intense U.S. pressure to crack down on sectarian violence.
    But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clearly has more work to do. Iraqi police, hospital and morgue officials reported 105 new violent deaths Wednesday; 54 of the victims were tortured and shot, their bodies dumped in Baghdad.
    The quick release of many of the captives — less than 24 hours after the abductions — was surprising in a country where hundreds of Iraqis have been kidnapped, murdered and dumped in streets or rivers each month. In two recent mass kidnappings, both of about 50 people, the victims were never heard of again.
    It was unclear how many Iraqis remained captive from Tuesday’s assault. Government ministries have given wildly varying figures on the number of people seized, with reports ranging from a high of about 150 to a low of 40 to 50.
    ‘‘We have information about the kidnappers and where the rest of the hostages are being held. Work is going well to release them,’’ Higher Education Minister Abed Theyab told Al-Arabiya television.
    The mass abduction took place in broad daylight when gunmen disguised in the blue camouflage uniforms of police commandos raided the Higher Education Ministry in Karradah, a primarily Shiite area of downtown Baghdad, handcuffed their victims and took them away in about 20 pickup trucks.
    The assault was widely believed to have been the work of the Mahdi Army, the heavily armed militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and it raised questions about al-Maliki’s commitment to wipe out the Shiite militias of his prime political backers: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement.
    The mass abduction was seen as retaliation for the recent kidnapping of 50 Shiites south of Baghdad.
    But al-Maliki’s public criticism of the kidnappers, and the fact that his Shiite-dominated government quickly won the release of many captives, appeared to be a sign that the militants had gone too far and the prime minister was ready to comply with U.S. demands to corral the militias and their death squads.
    Many of the fighters are believed to operate within the country’s police and security forces, both of which are run and dominated by Shiites.
    On Monday, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, became the third Washington heavyweight in two weeks to tell al-Maliki that the armed groups had to be disbanded and disarmed and the United States wanted proof.
    Frustration has been growing inside the Bush administration over al-Maliki’s perceived disregard for the country’s Sunni Arab minority, which dominated the country until the fall of Saddam Hussein.
    The United States has struggled since it invaded in 2003 to build a democratic and multi-sectarian and multiethnic government. Al-Maliki has been increasingly seen as a reluctant partner, if not a hindrance.
    Until about nine months ago, the Shiite majority had resisted major acts of revenge against some Sunni insurgent groups and al-Qaida in Iraq and its allies that were behind the killing of U.S. troops and thousands of Shiites in bomb and mortar attacks.
    But after the Feb. 22 bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, enraged Shiites began fighting back — primarily members of the Mahdi Army who stormed out of Baghdad’s Sadr City Shiite slum bent on revenge. Al-Maliki is heavily dependent on al-Sadr, the militia’s benefactor, for his political survival.
    When al-Maliki became prime minister in May at the head of a nominal national unity government, he put forward a 24-point reconciliation plan that was optimistically seen as a bid to draw disaffected Sunnis into the political fold.
    But as the months passed, extreme violence blamed on the Mahdi Army and to a lesser degree on the Badr Brigade, another Shiite militia, spiraled out of control. The brutal sectarian killings brought Iraq to the edge of civil war.
    The unleashing of the militias and their death squads only compounded anger among moderate Sunnis over the prime minister’s seeming inaction on concrete moves toward national reconciliation.
    But al-Maliki’s handling of Tuesday’s mass kidnapping suggested that he has realized he can no longer ignore U.S. demands regarding the militias, now that Democrats have taken control of the U.S. Congress and with President Bush reconsidering the goals and mission of U.S. forces in Iraq.
    Al-Maliki first appeared to minimize the importance of kidnappings Tuesday, saying on television: ‘‘What is happening is not terrorism, but the result of disagreements and conflict between militias belonging to this side or that.’’
    But on Wednesday he said, ‘‘Most of the hostages were freed, but that is not enough for us. We will chase those who did this ugly criminal act.’’
    Authorities arrested six top police officers who served in the Shiite region where the kidnapping occurred and the Mahdi Army is increasingly powerful.
    Meeting with professors and students at Baghdad University to show of support for the country’s educational institutions, the prime minister said: ‘‘We regret what happened yesterday. The government’s reaction was strong.’’
    Higher Education Ministry spokesman Basil al-Khatib said 40 employees of the Higher Education Ministry, which handles academic grants and exchanges, were released Tuesday and 32 more were freed Wednesday.
    Al-Khatib said Theyab, a Sunni, had suspended his participation in the government until all the kidnap victims were released.
    Among the 105 who were killed or found dead in Iraq on Wednesday, 11 died in the deadliest single attack — a car bomb that also wounded at least 32 near a gasoline station in central Baghdad’s Bab Shargi area, police said.
    The day’s fatalities included journalists Fadia Mohammed al-Taie in Mosul and Luma al-Karkhi in Baqouba.
    At least 91 journalists have been killed in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count based on statistics kept by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Also, 36 other media employees, including drivers, interpreters and guards, have been killed — all of them Iraqi except for one Lebanese.
    The U.S. military also announced the combat deaths of three U.S. Army soldiers and three U.S. Marines, raising the number of American war dead to 2,858. So far this month, 40 American service members have been killed or died in Iraq.
    The six all died Tuesday, four fighting in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar Province in western Iraq and two whose convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

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