Westerners kidnapped in Baghdad -- with 40 Iraqi police cars on the scene

Aren’t men in police uniforms doing horrible things every day in Iraq? Yes, unfortunately. But rarely on this scale:

Witnesses and sources told the BBC that the kidnappers wore police uniforms and arrived in up to 40 police vehicles

The street was sealed off at both ends and the kidnappers, in police camouflage uniforms, walked straight past guards at the finance ministry building on Palestine Street, the witnesses said.

A police source told the BBC that dozens of police vehicles were used in the operation.

The BBC’s Paul Wood in Baghdad says that if such reports are true, it could point to the involvement of a renegade police unit, possibly special commandoes.

While it has been possible in the past for criminals or militants to hire police uniforms and vehicles, he says, the scale of this operation suggests real police involvement.

Could this have been a legitimate police operation? Unlikely — the Beeb reports that the foreign office is putting together a crisis team and holding emergency meetings. They’re not sure who the victims are at the moment, but they suspect it’s a German finance expert and his British bodyguards; the Daily Mirror notes that other reports say it’s three German computer programmers and their bodyguards. As for suspects:

Although no group has as yet claimed responsibility, first suspicion is bound to fall on the Mahdi Army, the dreaded Shi’ite militia; the snatch bore some of the group’s hallmarks, including the use of police vehicles and uniforms. Iraq’s minority Sunnis routinely complain that the Iraqi police force often acts as a front for Shi’ite militias, especially the Mahdi Army…

But it is unusual for the Mahdi Army to kidnap foreigners—that tends to be the work of Sunni terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.

Well, the JAM might have special reasons for wanting to send a message to the British in this case. But here’s the wrinkle: if the operation was carried out with the connivance of the finance ministry, which is certainly possible given that the finance minister is himself a “conservative” Shiite and “there was no resistance” from officials inside the building, how do we figure this?

The building attacked Tuesday was under Shiite control. The finance minister, Bayan Jabr, is a conservative Shiite frequently accused by Sunnis of fomenting sectarian violence.

It was Mr. Jabr, Iraq’s interior minister until last May, who oversaw the rapid growth of the Iraqi security forces. He is a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and he was once a brigade commander for the party’s militia, the Badr Brigade.

Why would SCIRI let the Sadrists stage an operation in “their” ministry? And why would this be so important that dozens of police cars would be needed to ensure its success?

No answers yet but stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, answer me this: if the plan next year is to redeploy to Kurdistan while the Sunnis and Shia slug it out, how exactly is that going to work if the Turks are dropping bombs on the area?

Update: Here’s a semi-answer to the exit question. Read: “If you don’t do it, we will.”

Update: Confirmed — five Brits missing, says the foreign office, as well as some number of Germans.

The group was reportedly surrounded by men wearing the uniforms of a heavily armed paramilitary unit of the Interior Ministry before being bundled into cars and driven off.

Witnesses said up to 40 gunmen surrounded the three storey building where the Germans have given a dozen lectures this year, before storming inside and demanding: “Where are the foreigners? Where are the foreigners?”