Gunmen Take 24 Iraqis Hostage

Three groups of gunmen kidnapped 24 Iraqis from businesses in Baghdad on Tuesday, while a car bomb exploded south of the capital as police exchanged fire with two homicide bombers at a police station, wounding a dozen people, officials said.

The attacks follow two days of violence that left 151 people dead, including 16 killed Sunday in a U.S.-Iraqi raid that Shiite officials said took place in a mosque. Shiite politicians halted negotiations on a new government in response.

Tuesday's abductions occurred separately but within the same half-hour period, the Interior Ministry said.

Fifteen gunmen wearing military uniforms but arriving in civilian cars stormed the Moussa Bin Nasir Exchange Co. in the southwest Harthiyah neighborhood about 1 p.m., kidnapping six people and stealing tens of thousands of dollars, police said.

About the same time, seven gunmen in civilian clothes ran into a Daewoo International electronics store downtown and abducted three employees, including the store manager, police said. A half-hour later, masked gunmen in military uniforms and helmets stormed a different branch of the same company in eastern Baghdad, seizing 15 employees, Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. They also arrived in civilian cars.

The kidnappings came a day after gunmen abducted 16 employees of an Iraqi trading company in the upscale Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad. Those gunmen also wore uniforms and masks when they entered the headquarters of the Saeed Import and Export Co. Police said they went through papers and computer files before taking away their captives, al-Mohammedawi said.

Rafidh Salim Saleh, a Saeed worker who avoided capture, said the company had been in Iraq more than 30 years and was involved with an electricity project south of Baghdad. He said a motive for the abductions was not known.

"The company has no political or terrorist ties," he said. "We don't even keep a gun."

In Tuesday's car bombing, two men drove up to the police station in Iskandariyah and started firing machine guns at police, who fired back, hitting one of the assailants before the car blew up, police Lt. Col. Khalil Abdul-Ridha said.

Eleven police and a female bystander were wounded, he said. A series of mortar rounds then hit the police station, but nobody was hurt, he said.

A curfew was imposed Tuesday on the northern city of Beiji, site of the nation's largest oil refinery. Local military officials said they were trying to prevent more violence after seven people were killed in the city last week.

In other violence, gunmen attacked a car carrying Iraqi contractors in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, killing two and wounding one, police Capt. Hakim al-Azzawi said. The men provided services to U.S. troops, al-Azzawi said.

Gunmen trying to kill a Tikrit council member killed his son instead, police said. Three Iraqis in the southern city of Nasiriyah died in a blast as they tried to plant a bomb at the house of an Iraqi journalist working for the U.S.-funded Iraqi television station Alhurra, the head of the Nasiriyah journalists' union said.

Police discovered 17 corpses of men who were handcuffed and shot in the head in west and south Baghdad. Fourteen of those were dumped under a bridge, police said.

Gunmen killed one person and wounded another as they drove down a highway in southern Baghdad, police said.

A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk, wounding four policemen and two children walking to school, police said. Several other bombs in Baghdad and the northern towns of Baqouba and Samarra wounded 15 others.

The firestorm of recrimination over Sunday's raid in northeastern Baghdad will likely make it harder for Shiite politicians to control their more belligerent followers as sectarian violence boils over. A unity government involving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is a benchmark for U.S. hopes of starting to withdraw troops this summer.

There were conflicting accounts from Iraqis and the Americans about the raid. Iraqi police, Shiite militia officials and major politicians have all said the structure attacked was the al-Mustafa mosque. But the U.S. military disputed this, saying no mosques were entered and that the raid targeted a building used by "insurgents responsible for kidnapping and execution activities."

In a conference call with reporters early Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, deputy commander in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which controls Baghdad, said 25 U.S. forces were in a backup role to 50 Iraqi Special Operations troops.

The generals said the mission was developed by the Iraqis on their intelligence that an Iraqi dental technician, who was kidnapped 12 hours earlier because he could not come up with $20,000, was being held in what they called an office complex.

"It's important to remember we had an Iraqi unit with us, an Iraqi unit of 50 folks and they told us point blank that this was not a mosque," Chiarelli said. "It's not Mustafa mosque. Mustafa mosque is located six blocks north on our maps of this location."

Associated Press reporters who visited the scene identified it as a neighborhood Shiite mosque complex. TV video taken Monday showed crumbling walls and disarray in a compound used as a gathering place for prayer. It was filled with religious posters and strung with banners denouncing the attack.

Earlier, the military said the building had been under U.S. observation for some time and gunmen opened fire as Iraqi special operations troops closed in. It said the troops then killed 16 insurgents and wounded three "during a house-to-house search," detained 18 men, found a significant weapons cache and freed the hostage.

"In our observation of the place and the activities that were going on, it's difficult for us to consider this a place of prayer," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman.

Iraqi police said gunmen fired on the joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol from a position in the neighborhood but not from the mosque.

Police and representatives of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who holds great sway among poor Shiites in eastern Baghdad, said all those killed were in the complex for evening prayers and none was a gunman. Police put the death toll at 17 — seven members of al-Sadr's militia, seven civilians and three Shiite political activists.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said an Iraqi-U.S. committee under his supervision would investigate the raid. "Those who are behind this attack must be brought to the justice and punished," he said.

The Baghdad governor said he cut ties with U.S. forces and diplomats, and all 37 members of the Baghdad provincial council suspended cooperation with the United States in reconstruction projects planned for the rest of the year, as well as political and security coordination, said council chairman Moeen al-Khadimi.

In other developments Tuesday, an Internet statement purportedly from the Mujahedeen Shura Council, a militant Sunni Muslim insurgent group, claimed responsibility for a suicide attack Monday near the gate of a U.S.-Iraq military base east of Tal Afar near the Syrian border.

The bomber, wearing an explosives vest killed 40 Iraqis and wounded 30 others, the Defense Ministry said.

The council's statement said the bomber was a Saudi "martyrdom seeker."