Up to 150 people kidnapped from Iraq ministry

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Gunmen wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms kidnapped up to 150 staff and visitors in a lightning raid on a government research institute in central Baghdad today, the largest mass abduction since the start of the US occupation.

Iraq's higher education minister instantly ordered all universities closed until security improvements were 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, Shiites and Sunnis, had been abducted in the 9.30am raid.

He urged the prime minister and ministers of interior and defence 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. Their fate remains unknown.

"It was quick operation. It took about 10 to 15 minutes," Theyab said.

Makki said the gunmen had a list of names 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.

Police and eyewitnesses said gunmen who numbered about 80 had closed off streets surrounding the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Scholarships and Cultural Relations Directorate in the Karradah district. The institute is responsible for granting scholarships to Iraqi professors and students wishing to study abroad.

Police spokesman Maj. 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 about pick-up trucks. She said the gunmen, some of them masked, wore blue camouflage uniforms of the type worn by police commandos.

Shiite militias and other illegal groups are known to wear stolen or fake police and army uniforms.

The abductions come amid a series of killings and other attacks on Iraqi academics that are robbing Iraq of its brain trust and prompting thousands of professors and researchers to flee to neighbouring countries to escape the country's boiling lawlessness and sectarian hatred.

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 relatively high public stature, vulnerability and known views on controversial issues in a climate of deepening Islamic fundamentalism.

Ali al-Adib, a Shiite politician, said there was little question today's incident was a mass kidnapping and demanded that US troops be held responsible for the security lapse.

"The detention of 150 people from a government institution without informing the higher education minister ... means this is an abduction operation," al-Adib said.

"There is a political goal behind this grave action," he said.

A spokesman for US forces in Iraq said American troops were ready to help in the hunt for the kidnappers.

"If the reports are true, than this is a terrible crime and we will support all efforts by the Iraqi government to bring these criminals to justice," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said.