AC: "...some kind of inside operation"
JOHN KING: We begin tonight with the kidnappings, but, first, some perspective.
At least 1,600 people were murdered in Baghdad last month. Hundreds more have been blown to bits. Nearly every day, the river fills up with tortured bodies. But, even by those standards, gruesome standards, what happened today in Baghdad is something else.
With tens of thousands of troops patrolling the city, a convoy of trucks somehow made its way into a neighborhood right in the center of town, not far from the Green Zone, right around 10 a.m. local time. The trucks pulled up. Gunmen got out. And a bizarre day of terror and mystery began. Reporting tonight from a badly shaken Baghdad, here's CNN's Michael Ware.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These Iraqi security forces move in to seal off a Baghdad university building, but it was too late.
Just a short time earlier, about 80 gunmen in similar army or police uniforms had also set up a cordon, before pouring inside this four-story research institute, claiming to be on official business, segregating men from women, and, within 20 minutes, escaping in a convoy of more than 20 vehicles, taking the men hostage -- the exact number, unknown; police saying as many as 60, a government minister saying it's up to 100 -- the only ones left behind, the distraught women.
The sophisticated raid, executed at 10:00 a.m., just after rush hour, was audacious -- so many gunmen, so many hostages, possibly the largest mass kidnapping of the war, all within the heart of the capital, with more than 60,000 American and Iraqi troops on the streets.
Hours later, the top police commanders in charge of the area where the kidnapping took place were called in for questioning by Ministry of Interior officials. Then, overnight, a government spokesman revealed most of the hostages had been released unharmed.
Mystery surrounds the affair, with signs of paramilitary involvement, no claim of responsibility, uncertainty as to the precise number of men taken, and, of course, the men's sudden release, an uncommon end to such incidents in Iraq. Yet the scale of the kidnapping on the morning after a one-day visit by America's top commander in the region, General John Abizaid, a clear illustration of what still confronts this ailing U.S.-backed government.
KING: Michael Ware joining us now from Baghdad.
Michael, the first question is, how? And, I guess, part of that question is, do they think this is somehow an inside job?
WARE: Well, just looking at the size of this operation, the degree of sophistication and organization involved, it certainly suggests that there was definitely paramilitary involvement. And, of course, the first finger of suspicion points to the ranks of the government forces themselves, particularly the much-maligned police and Ministry of Interior forces.
I mean, what we saw here, in the midst of the heart of the city, in particular an area laden with the security forces, because there are so many officials living and working in that part of the city, you have up to 80 gunmen in what the Minister for Higher Education said was more than 20 trucks, some of them, eyewitnesses claim, with police and government markings, roll in, seize the kidnap victims, and roll out again, without a checkpoint and cordons established to cover their backs.
That suggests definitely something's going on -- John.
KING: And, so, Michael, viewers in the United States might ask, with so many U.S. troops there, tens of thousands in Baghdad itself, how could this have happened? What are the U.S. rules of engagement? Are they actively policing in areas like this, as of this morning? And after this audacious, as you call it, kidnapping, is there any talk there of changing the way the United States operates?
WARE: Well, it just so happens, John, that the broader area where this happened is within an area known as Karada here in the city. That's the same area where it's believed that the U.S. soldier who's currently missing was seized by his kidnappers.
So, in the wake of the disappearance of the U.S. soldier, that area was sealed off for just over a week. And U.S. forces were ordered by the Iraqi prime minister to lift their blockade and their checkpoints in that area.
So, this is what happens in Iraq. Even with the tens of thousands of troops that are here in Baghdad, with their rules of engagement, with the size of this city, with the complexity of the threat against them, they simply are not everywhere all the time. In fact, most of the time, they're simply not there at all -- John.
KING: And, as you know well, Michael, we often hear, back in the United States, from political leaders, talk that Iraqi training is getting better, that the security apparatus is getting better.
Take our viewers up to 5,000 feet, if you will. To get to this point in the city, how many barricades, checkpoints, and other security lines and perimeters should -- should -- these kidnappers have had to go through?
WARE: Well, for example, I used to live, broadly, within that area.
And there's checkpoints controlling access there at each of the key bridges that you come off. Often, the streets themselves, the avenues throughout that part of the city, will be lined by government troops or police forces of some kind or another, waiting for a dignitary to come through.
I mean, the place is literally saturated with Iraqi security forces. So, on one hand, the movement of a large convoy would not attract so much attention. But, on the other hand, this operation of this size was able to slip through, control a part of the city it needed to for at least 20 minutes, and then withdraw, without anyone trying to stop them.
I mean, clearly, there's some kind of inside operation going on here -- John.
KING: Michael Ware for us on this remarkable and troubling story in Baghdad -- Michael, thank you very much.