BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Gunmen in uniforms seized 30 or more Iraqi sports officials, including the national Olympics chief, and their bodyguards in Baghdad on Saturday, barely an hour after parliament voted to extend a state of emergency.
The kidnappings at a central Baghdad hall where the officials were meeting occurred despite a crackdown by Iraqi forces in the capital. Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s national unity government is struggling to get a grip on worsening sectarian violence. Later in the day, bombings in a commercial area of Baghdad’s southern Saidiya district killed seven people and wounded 12, police said. Both Sunnis and Shiites live in the area. Police said gunmen wearing blue camouflage uniforms used by the ministry stormed the central Baghdad hall and killed a bodyguard of Olympic Committee chief Ahmed Hadjiya.
Hadjiya and about 20 bodyguards, along with at least eight committee officials and the hall’s guards, were then bundled into a convoy of vehicles and driven off, police sources said.
Police said the body of a second bodyguard was found dumped not far from the meeting hall. He had been shot in the head.
Several of the hall’s security guards were later found unharmed.
A committee official who was not present said the event was a regular, six-monthly meeting of the body, which has been trying to resurrect Iraqi sport amid deepening violence. It was previously hard hit by international sanctions and control of the Olympic Committee by Saddam Hussein’s feared son Uday.
“Gunmen wearing Iraqi security force uniforms took everyone who was inside the hall,” shop owner Khaled Muhammed, a witness, told Reuters.
Sportsmen have been targets of Iraq’s mounting violence, some apparently by increasingly powerful Islamist militants who believe sport is contrary to Islamic values. In May, 15 athletes and officials from the taekwondo martial arts squad were kidnapped in western Iraq. They have not been heard of since.
In Geneva, the International Olympic Committee condemned the kidnappings and called for the release of Hadjiya and his aides.
Iraq’s parliament voted for the first time on extending a state of emergency across Iraq, except the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, for a further 30 days. The motion was passed by a two-thirds majority with no debate.
Previously, the prime minister was able to extend the state of emergency, in force since 2004 to tackle a Sunni insurgency against the US-backed government and US forces, but under a new constitution such a move now requires parliament’s approval.
Scores have been killed in tit-for-tat violence over the past week in Baghdad. In violence overnight, gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns battled residents in the largely Sunni neighbourhood of Fadhil, police said, adding two people were killed and seven wounded in the fighting.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said in a statement Iraq was “in danger of slipping into hateful sectarian strife”.
The violence has undermined confidence in Maliki’s new national unity government of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis and raised questions about the effectiveness of the new Iraqi army being built up to allow US forces to begin withdrawing troops.
Maliki has vowed to disband the militias that now control many of Baghdad’s streets and that analysts say pose the biggest threat to his power. But he faces a difficult task since the most powerful are tied to parties within his own administration