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Gunmen kidnap 26 in Baghdad

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Gunmen dressed in military fatigues burst into the offices of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and a nearby mobile phone company Monday, seizing 26 people in a daylight raid in a mostly Shiite area of the capital.

Also Monday, at least 30 people were killed or found dead in political or sectarian violence across the country, police said. They included four Iraqi soldiers killed in a suicide bombing in northern Iraq, the first such attack in the Kurdish-ruled province of Dahuk.

The kidnappings occurred around noon when 15 four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying the gunmen pulled into the main shopping area of Karradah, an upscale residential district where several Shiite politicians live.

One group entered a mobile phone shop, the other went to the next door office of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce, police Lt. Thair Mahmoud said. The gunmen rounded up 15 staff and customers from the shop and 11 from the chamber office and drove away with them, Mahmoud said.

All the victims were believed to be Iraqis. The Iraqi-American Chamber is an independent organization not affiliated with the U.S. government, and maintains branches throughout Iraq.

The Interior Ministry denied that the kidnappers were police — despite the uniforms — and blamed the attack on "terrorists," Iraqi state television reported.

The raid occurred in the same neighborhood as the abduction two weeks ago of about 30 people, including the Iraqi National Olympic Committee chairman, during a meeting of sports officials.

A few have been released; those still missing include the committee chairman, Ahmed al-Hijiya. The gunmen who seized the sports officials also wore fatigues and used the same kind of four-wheeled drive vehicles as the kidnappers Monday.

Also Monday, gunmen wearing fatigues blocked the car of a millionaire businessman in a Baghdad neighborhood and seized him and his two sons, leaving the man's car in the street, police Lt. Bilal Ali Majeed said.

It was unclear whether the brazen operations were carried out by government police or paramilitary commandos, or sectarian militias or criminals wearing military fatigues, which are widely available in Baghdad markets.

U.S. officials estimate an average of 30-40 people are kidnapped each day in Iraq, although the real figure may be higher because few families contact the police. Security officials believe most of the ransoms end up in the hands of insurgent and militia groups.

Many abductions are believed to be tied to the ongoing violence between Sunni and Shiite extremists who target civilians of the rival Muslim communities.

On Monday, the government said that since February, 30,359 families — or about 182,000 people — had fled their homes due to sectarian violence and intimidation. That represented an increase of about 20,000 people from the number reported July 20.

In other violence Monday, according to police: a Sunni imam, Abdul-Aalem sl-Jumeili, was shot dead late Monday in his home in Fallujah; two mortar shells exploded in a mixed neighborhood in southern Baghdad, killing a civilian; also in the capital, gunmen killed a Health Ministry employee, Maad Jihad, Monday afternoon.

The shootings, kidnappings, bombings and extortion have prompted a public outcry about the effectiveness of Iraq's U.S.-trained security forces, whose ranks are believed infiltrated by Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias and common criminals.

That has led to calls in parliament for replacing Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, who was appointed last month in a bid to put leadership of the internal security forces into the hands of someone unconnected to militias or avowedly sectarian parties — a key U.S. demand.

But al-Bolani, a Shiite and former aviation technician, had no background in security. Iraqi politicians complained that they were unable to find someone with a security background who was not linked to a sectarian party.

On Monday, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi confirmed that plans for a Cabinet reshuffle were in the works but he would not identify which ministries would be affected.

Other Iraqi lawmakers said changes the Interior Ministry were difficult because the Americans would have to approve them. The lawmakers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The United States had hoped the establishment of the government of national unity — with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — would bolster public confidence and lead to a decline in violence so that U.S. and other international troops could begin heading home.

Instead, the U.S. military is boosting its force in Iraq and sending at least 3,700 soldiers from northern Iraq into Baghdad to cope with a surge in violence that started when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government took office in May.

Al-Maliki conferred late Sunday with his key security ministers, and afterward issued a statement saying the government was drafting plans to bolster forces in five Baghdad-area communities with the worst sectarian violence.

Contributing: Qais al-Bashir, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Bushra Juhi, Rawya Rageh