Gunmen wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms kidnapped up to 150 staff and visitors in a lightning raid on a government research institute in downtown Baghdad yesterday, the largest mass abduction since the start of the US occupation.
Iraq's higher education minister instantly ordered all universities closed until security improvements are made, saying he was "not ready to see more professors get killed."
"I have only one choice which is to suspend classes at universities. We have no other choice," Abed Theyab said in an address to parliament.
Alaa Makki, head of the parliament's education committee, interrupted the body's session to say that between 100 and 150 people, both Shiites and Sunnis, had been abducted in the 9:30am raid.
He urged the prime minister and ministers of interior and defense to respond rapidly to what he called a "national catastrophe."
The kidnapping is the largest of any group since about 50 people taken from the offices of a private security company in March.
"It was a quick operation. It took about 10 to 15 minutes," Theyab said. "It was a four-story building and the gunmen went to the four stories."
Makki said the gunmen had a list of those to be taken and claimed to be on a mission from the government's anti-corruption body. Those kidnapped included the institute's deputy general directors, employees and visitors, he said.
The Interior Ministry said last night that three of the 150 had been been released.
Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul-Karim Khallaf said the three had been found unharmed along Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad.
Khallaf said the police chief of the Karradah district where the abduction occurred has been placed under investigation along with some of his officers.
Police and eyewitnesses said gunmen who numbered about 80 had closed off streets surrounding the Ministry of Higher Education and the Scientific Research, Scholarships and Cultural Relations Directorate. The institute is responsible for granting scholarships to Iraqis wishing to study abroad.
Police spokesman Major Mahir Hamad said four guards at the institute put up no resistance and were unharmed.
Eyewitnesses, including a female professor visiting at the time of the kidnappings, said the gunmen forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard around 20 pickup trucks.
She said the gunmen, some of them masked, wore blue camouflage uniforms of the type worn by police commandos.
The abductions come amid a series of killings and other attacks on academics that are robbing Iraq of its intellectual talent and prompting thousands of professors and researchers to flee to neighboring countries.
Recent weeks have seen a university dean and prominent Sunni geologist murdered, bringing the death toll among educators to at least 155 since the war began.
The academics apparently were singled out for their high public stature, vulnerability and known views on controversial issues in a climate of deepening Islamic fundamentalism.
Ali al-Adib, a Shiite lawmaker, said there was little question yesterday's incident was a mass kidnapping and demanded that US troops be held responsible for the security lapse.