Gunmen dressed as local security forces on Tuesday stormed into a heavily guarded state compound in Baghdad to kidnap the deputy oil minister in the highest profile abduction in Iraq for months.
Deputy Oil Minister Abdel Jabar al-Wagaa was dragged out of the compound of the state oil marketing company at gunpoint with several other people in broad daylight on Tuesday, oil ministry officials said.
“At 4:00 pm (1300 GMT), a gang wearing Iraqi security uniforms broke into the compound and kidnapped five employees, including al-Wagaa,” Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani told state telvision.
He said that some of the hostages had already been released, but declined to specify a number or clarify whether Wagaa was among them.
“We marshalled all our forces and are carrying out raids on various hide outs and some of the hostages have been freed,” he said.
“It was a criminal gang, they have no political or sectarian motives,” Shahristani told the television station by telephone.
Oil is Iraq’s most valuable natural resource but development has been hampered by sabotage, corruption and instability. The Iraqi government has also massively hiked the price of petrol since the 2003 US-led invasion.
It was the highest profile kidnapping in Baghdad since five Britons were snatched from the Iraqi finance ministry when a squad of men wearing police uniforms stormed the building on May 29.
The Britons have still not been released.
The kidnapping came just hours after a suicide truck bomber shattered a concrete bridge linking Baghdad to northern provinces, killing eight people and sending three cars plunging into the river below, security officials said.
A plethora of grisly insurgent attacks and the announcement of another five American soldiers killed came on the second day of the latest US big operation targeting Shiite extremist networks and insurgents affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
The nationwide crackdown has been seen as an attempt to curb violence before General David Petraeus, the head of coalition forces in Iraq, gives a crucial progress report on operations in Iraq in early September.
His findings — more than six months after Petraeus took up the helm in Iraq to implement a new counter-insurgency strategy — could radically affect Washington’s war strategy amid increasing calls for troops to come home.
The US military said four suspected Shiite militants were killed in a raid on Baghdad’s volatile slum of Sadr City on Tuesday with dozens of others arrested during crackdowns in other parts of the country.
Sadr City is a notorious bastion of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the target was a “rogue” militia leader and his operatives suspected of attacks against US forces in Baghdad, the military said.
“These militants are also known to have ties to illicit materials smuggled from Iran that have been used in extra-judicial killings,” it said, adding that they had broken away from the main Mahdi Army militia of Sadr.
The US military accuses Shiite militants and Sadr’s Mahdi Army of being behind the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs since Iraq’s relentless sectarian conflict broke out last year.
It claims some of the militants are members of special cells trained, armed and funded by Iranian-linked groups to launch attacks on US-led forces. Tehran denies it sponsors the militants.
Some 16,000 troops, meanwhile, have surged into restive Diyala province in an attempt to crack down on Sunni insurgents and “capture or kill Al-Qaeda responsible for the violence against Iraqi civilians,” the military said.
Given daily sectarian violence and political paralysis, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for crisis talks this week of senior leaders from Iraq’s bitterly divided communities to try to salvage his crumbling coalition.
In preparation, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the senior Sunni Arab in the government, met Massud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, and was set to meet other Kurdish leaders on Wednesday.
But lawmaker Omar Abdul Sattar from the main Sunni bloc, the National Concord Front that walked out of the coalition on August 1, feared Maliki would blame the opposition parties “for the political mess” at the upcoming summit.
Despite the crackdown, at least 16 Iraqis were killed on Tuesday.
In one of the worst attacks, police reported that gunmen slaughtered the pregnant wife of a police officer, his brother and 12-year-old son in the town of Suweira, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Baghdad.
In another pre-dawn attack, gunmen killed three women and a man sleeping on a rooftop in the mainly Shiite village of Ghraiya, in Diyala, a medic said.