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Dozens kidnapped from ministry

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Gunmen dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms and driving vehicles with Interior Ministry markings rounded up dozens of people inside a government building in the heart of Baghdad on Tuesday and drove off with them in one of the most brazen mass kidnappings since a wave of sectarian abductions and killings became a feature of the war.

Although some Iraqi officials said as many as 150 people had been taken, the U.S. military command put the total at 55.

Witnesses said as many as 50 gunmen arrived at the Ministry of Higher Education compound at midmorning, forced their way past a handful of guards and stormed through a four-story building, herding office workers, visitors and even a delivery boy outside at rifle point. After women were separated, the men were loaded aboard a fleet of more than 30 pickup trucks and two larger trucks, then driven away through heavy traffic toward mainly Shiite neighborhoods on the city's eastern edge, officials and witnesses said.

Late Tuesday there were conflicting reports that some or most of those taken had been freed. Iraqiya state television reported that most of those seized had been freed in security operations, but a Shiite station, Al Furat, said 25 people were still missing, according to Reuters. None of the reports could be confirmed.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, announced on state television several hours after the abductions that orders had been issued for the arrest of several police commanders from the Karada area in eastern Baghdad, the site of the Higher Education Ministry.

That announcement, combined with other details, including accounts by one of a group of about a dozen people released by the kidnappers later on Tuesday, appeared to suggest that the abductions may have been the latest in a series of mass kidnappings carried out by Shiite gangs and death squads operating from inside the Interior Ministry, or with access to its uniforms and vehicles. If Tuesday's abductions are traced to groups operating under Interior Ministry cover, they seem certain to add a new level of crisis to the political tensions in Baghdad.

Recent events in the United States, including the Democrats' midterm election gains last week and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have intensified U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and the alliance of Shiite religious groups he leads to act decisively to improve his government's performance — in effect, to show that America has an effective partner in the war, and help to head off the momentum in Washington for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Action against sectarian militias and death squads, particularly those associated with the governing Shiite parties, tops the U.S. priorities that have been urged on the Iraqi leader, most recently in a meeting in Baghdad on Monday with the top American military commander in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid.

Late on Tuesday, al-Maliki, appearing on state television, appeared anxious to establish that he had responded swiftly to the abductions, saying that he had ordered the Defense and Interior ministries to mount an intensive search for those seized.

The 56-year-old prime minister said security sweeps had been responsible for the dozen people released earlier in the day, though that did not immediately tally with the account given by a Shiite ministry official who was among those set free. The official said that he and others in his group had been separated from the main body of those taken from the ministry by their kidnappers after the gunmen quizzed their captives about their identities and occupations. After being driven blindfolded to a rural area in northern Baghdad, the official said, they were abandoned and left to make their own way to safety.

The government's swift response in ordering the arrest of police commanders in the neighborhood where Tuesday's kidnappings occurred was a break with a pattern of inaction bordering on indifference in several earlier mass kidnappings that appeared to have been linked to Shiite death squads.

While concern to show a new resolve to restive critics of the war in Washington was likely to have been a major spur, another was the sheer scale and audaciousness of Tuesday's attack. By seizing such a large number of people from a government building, in the center of the capital in broad daylight, the kidnappers appeared to be sending a message that they could pounce anywhere with effective impunity.

The precise number abducted from the ministry remained uncertain. In an angry, anguished address delivered on live television, Abed Thiab al-Ajili, the higher education minister and a member of the country's largest Sunni political bloc, told parliament that 100 to 150 people had been taken; ministry officials said they included Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians. A similar figure was given by the Shiite ministry official who was released. His figure, though, appeared to be based on a rough count of the people working in the building, and visitors, rather than an accurate head count of the abducted.

The U.S. military command, which sent troops to the site of the kidnappings, said its own investigation showed that the number of men taken was about 55.