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Dozens are released a day after mass abduction in Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- Kidnappers have released about 70 people snatched in a mass abduction by suspected Shi'ite militiamen who answer to a key backer of the prime minister -- a sign the militants went too far and Iraq's leader may be yielding to intense US pressure to crack down on sectarian violence.

But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clearly has more work to do. Iraqi police, hospital, and morgue officials reported 105 new violent deaths yesterday; 54 of the victims were tortured and shot, their bodies dumped in Baghdad.

The quick release of many of the captives -- less than 24 hours after the abductions -- was surprising in a country where hundreds of Iraqis are kidnapped, murdered, and dumped in streets or rivers each month. In two recent mass kidnappings, both of about 50 people, the victims were never heard from again.

It was unclear how many Iraqis remained captive from Tuesday's assault. Government ministries have given wildly varying figures on the number of people seized, with reports ranging from a high of about 150 to a low of 40 .

"We have information about the kidnappers and where the rest of the hostages are being held. Work is going well to release them," Higher Education Minister Abed Theyab told Al-Arabiya television.

The mass abduction took place in broad daylight when gunmen disguised in the blue camouflage uniforms of police commandos raided the Higher Education Ministry in Karradah, a primarily Shi'ite area of downtown Baghdad, handcuffed their victims, and took them away in about 20 pickup s.

The assault was widely believed to have been the work of the Mahdi Army, the heavily armed militia of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and it raised questions about Maliki's commitment to wipe out the Shi'ite militias of his prime political backers: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Sadr's Sadrist Movement.

The mass abduction was seen as retaliation for the recent kidnapping of 50 Shi'ites south of Baghdad.

But Maliki's public criticism of the kidnappers, and the fact that his Shi'ite-dominated government quickly won the release of many captives, appeared to be a sign that the militants had gone too far and the prime minister was ready to comply with US demands to corral the militias and their death squads.

Many of the fighters are believed to operate within the country's police and security forces, both of which are run and dominated by Shi'ites.

On Monday, General John Abizaid, chief of US Central Command, became the third Washington heavyweight in two weeks to tell Maliki that the armed groups had to be disbanded and disarmed and that the United States wanted proof.

Frustration has been growing inside the Bush administration over Maliki's perceived disregard for the country's Sunni Arab minority, which dominated the country until the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The US military also announced the combat deaths of three Army soldiers and three Marines, raising the number of American war dead to 2,858. This month, 40 American service members have been killed or died in Iraq.

The six all died Tuesday, four fighting in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar Province in western Iraq and two whose convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

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