Iraqi deputy minister kidnapped

by Mussab Al-Khairalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Gunmen in camouflage uniforms seized Iraq's deputy health minister from his home on Sunday, an aide and a neighbor said, the day after another prominent Shi'ite politician was shot dead amid brewing sectarian strife.

It was the latest incident over the past week that cast doubt on the loyalties of Iraq's U.S.-trained security forces and came as the Syrian foreign minister flew in for talks likely to focus on aid reaching militants through Syria.

A suicide bomber earlier killed 22 people in a Shi'ite town south of Baghdad after luring poor day laborers with the promise of work and then detonating explosives in a minibus.

A Sunni Islamist group claimed the attack in Hilla, calling it revenge for a mass kidnap from a Sunni-run Baghdad ministry that many Sunnis blame on Shi'ite militiamen in police uniform.

In Baghdad, Ammar al-Saffar, a member of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa party, was taken away by gunmen wearing army uniforms who were accompanied by three men in suits, a neighbor, who declined to be identified, said.

The neighbor told Reuters he did not see the kidnapping but was told about it by Saffar's guards. Saffar's aide confirmed the abduction in a mainly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad.

The apparent abduction came the day after Ali al-Adhadh of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Dawa ally, was shot dead with his wife as he drove in mainly Sunni west Baghdad, police and a party official said.

Tuesday's mass kidnap at the Higher Education Ministry was followed by the kidnapping of Shi'ite bus passengers the next day by uniformed men who set up checkpoints in a Sunni district.  

The Shi'ite-held interior ministry has said all the civil servants were released days ago -- but the Sunni Higher Education Minister is boycotting the government until 66 people, who he says are still missing, are accounted for.


With sectarian pressure undermining Iraq's government and growing pressure in Washington for a change of tack in Iraq, Syria's foreign minister arrived for a rare visit to Baghdad.

Walid al-Moualem flew in and was expected to hold talks with Iraqi leaders about repeated U.S. and Iraqi complaints that Damascus has done too little to stop the flow of insurgents and weapons across its border.

With U.S. President George W. Bush looking for fresh ideas that could help calm violence and let American troops go home, there have been new calls from his allies and in Washington for him to talk to Syria and Iran, both at loggerheads with the United States and blamed by it for fomenting trouble in Iraq.

Sunni Muslim insurgents are battling Iraqi and U.S. forces, while bloodshed between majority Shi'ites and Saddam Hussein's once dominant minority Sunnis has killed thousands of Iraqis and raised fears Iraq is teetering on the edge of all-out civil war.

Iraq's top Sunni cleric said on Sunday the Shi'ite-led government had trumped up terrorism charges against him to stop him holding it to account for the actions of Shi'ite militias.

Harith al-Dari was issued with an arrest warrant last week. Hundreds of Sunnis demonstrated in protest in Baghdad on Sunday.

"The government wanted to instigate a crisis to silence me after we exposed the mass murders and sectarian killings by militias of Shi'ite parties," he said in Jordan, where he lives.

A spokesman for police in the mainly Shi'ite city of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital, said 49 people were wounded in the early morning blast, when shrapnel tore through the expectant crowd as laborers jostled to come closer.

The tactic has been used before by al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants at spots where men congregate hoping for casual work.

"I was standing with other laborers when the minibus came and the driver asked for laborers. Everybody ran towards him and then he detonated his vehicle," Ali Mohammed told Reuters as he lay in a local hospital, his left thigh bandaged.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Alastair Macdonald, Claudia Parsons and Ross Colvin in Baghdad, Inal Ersan in Dubai and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman)

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