BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's foreign minister said on Wednesday he suspected Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia was behind the abduction of five Britons from a government building in Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi troops raided Baghdad neighbourhoods overnight, including the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, in a hunt for the Britons, who were kidnapped in an audacious daylight raid by dozens of gunmen, police and residents said.
A senior Iraqi government official said Tuesday's kidnappings could be in retaliation for the killing of the militia's top commander by British-backed Iraqi special forces in the southern city of Basra last week.
"It may be the Mehdi Army because the location of the (kidnapping) is in their theatre of operations," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters.
"Their safety is our top priority ... I don't think they will finish them. They are using them for bargaining, but they have not contacted anybody yet."
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said British officials were working with Iraqi authorities to find out how the Britons were abducted and to secure their swift release.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf dismissed suggestions that the kidnappers, who were dressed in police commando camouflage uniforms and driving official vehicles, were a renegade unit from his ministry.
Interior Ministry forces are known to be heavily infiltrated by Shi'ite militias, including the Mehdi Army, and have often been accused of kidnappings and sectarian murders.
But a top official in Sadr's political movement, Abdul Mahdi al-Mutiri, said the scale and organisation of Tuesday's operation was beyond the Mehdi Army's capabilities.
A government employee who witnessed the kidnappings also gave new details of the well-planned operation and told how two other Westerners had narrowly escaped being taken by the gunmen who rushed into the Finance Ministry building.
The kidnappings challenge a major security crackdown in the capital by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The troops are trying to stabilise Baghdad, epicentre of sectarian violence, but bombings, shootings and kidnappings continue.
Residents of Sadr City told of being awoken in the early hours of Wednesday as U.S. armoured vehicles smashed their way into at least seven houses, demolishing walls to make way for troops who stormed in behind them.
The U.S. military said it could not confirm the involvement of U.S. troops in the operations.
Sadr city resident Abu Ali, an elderly man wearing a traditional chequered black and white headscarf, said his son was detained in the overnight raid.
"I was asleep when I heard them shout 'Go!' and they drove into my home bringing down the wall. They started beating us and telling us to bring out the four Britons ... We said we didn't have them, but they tied our hands outside and put the women together in one room," he told Reuters.
The Interior Ministry spokesman said Iraqi forces were also hunting for the hostages. He called the gunmen who stormed the Finance Ministry building in Palestine Street "gangsters". "These people are not from the Interior Ministry," Khalaf said.
Police said dozens of gunmen sealed off the streets around the two-storey ministry building, where a group of employees were receiving a lecture from a Western expert on electronic contracts in a computer centre on the ground floor.
A ministry employee who witnessed the kidnapping and did not want to be identified said one Western lecturer escaped abduction because he was hidden from view among his students, who were at computers in cubicles.
Moments before the gunmen entered, an Irish lecturer had left the lecture room to fetch some material. He, too, escaped.
It was a third, British, lecturer known only as Peter who was seized from an adjoining room. The four bodyguards had been standing outside the room.
"It all happened in seconds. Suddenly a large number of Iraqi police commandos came in shouting 'Where are the foreigners? We are on an official assignment'," the ministry employee said.
"They surrounded the guards, who were shouting. I did not understand what they were saying. They looked into our room but did not recognise the lecturer as he was sitting among us."