BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms kidnapped two dozen employees at Red Crescent offices in downtown Baghdad on Sunday, highlighting the threat to humanitarian workers swept up in Iraq’s lawlessness.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, visiting Iraq for the sixth time since the 2003 invasion, appealed for international support for Iraq and said the bloodshed was being carried out “by the very forces worldwide who are trying to prevent moderation.”

“Our task – ours, the Americans, the whole of the coalition, the international community and the Iraqis themselves – is to make sure that the forces of terrorism don’t defeat the will of the people to have a democracy,” Blair said.

The mass abduction was the latest in a series of such attacks.

that have targeted workers at factories, delegates at a sports conference and bystanders at bus stations. In most cases, the gunmen wore police or military uniforms. Their identity and motives were unclear, though the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites has fueled much of the recent violence in Baghdad.

Gunmen in five pickup trucks pulled up to the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent at around 11 a.m., police said. A Red Crescent official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said the gunmen left women behind and that six workers were later released.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said three Iraqi security guards at its embassy building in Baghdad were kidnapped along with the Red Crescent employees, and that one was later released. The embassy is next to the offices of the Iraqi aid group.

The Red Crescent, part of the international Red Cross movement, has around 1,000 staff and some 200,000 volunteers in Iraq. It works closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits detainees and tries to provide food, water and medicine to Iraqis.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC’s director of operations, said it was the only aid organization able to work throughout Iraq – the only country where the ICRC, whose Baghdad headquarters was bombed in 2003, travels incognito for fear that its symbol could be taken as a target by armed groups rather than an emblem of protection.

“We urge all those who have, or may have, or may use their moral or political influence on the ground, to call for respect of human rights and dignity,” Kraehenbuehl said.

Antonella Notari, another Red Cross official in Geneva, said the organization was in contact with the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which denied any involvement and was searching for the abductees.

Some Iraqi police and military units have been infiltrated by Shiite militias linked to ruling political parties.

Mazin Abdellaha, secretary-general of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said the agency “helps all people regardless of their sect or ethnicity,” Abdellaha said.

Kraehenbuehl dismissed suggestions that the abduction was linked to recent comments by the Iraqi Red Crescent’s vice president, Dr. Jamal al-Karbouli, that American forces represented a greater danger to its work than militants in the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

“The insurgents, they are Iraqis, a lot of them are Iraqis, and they respect the Iraqis. And they respect our (the Red Crescent’s) identity, which is neutrality,” al-Karbouli said Friday.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said in response that the U.S.-led coalition forces “strive to ensure they are respectful when they conduct interaction with the local population.”

Many international aid organizations closed down their operations in Iraq as the security situation deteriorated after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE international in Iraq and a citizen of Britain, Ireland and Iraq, was abducted in Baghdad in October 2004. She was killed a month later and her body has never been found.

On Sunday, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed three American soldiers and injured a fourth serviceman north of Baghdad. The soldiers were clearing a route so another unit could move through the area on Saturday, the military said in a statement.

The toll raised to 57 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in December. At least 2,945 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

British and Iraqi troops in Basra are conducting a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep aimed at rooting out weapons and militants and launching reconstruction projects. Its completion in the new year will likely trigger an announcement that Britain is slashing its troop numbers.

Britain has 7,000 troops in Iraq, most based around the city of Basra in the south – the largest commitment of any country after the United States. More than 120 British personnel have died in Iraq since 2003.

“The operation there for the Iraqi forces to take control of security of the city is going well,” said Blair, who later flew to Basra to visit troops stationed there.

“You are not fighting a state, but fighting a set of ideas and ideologies, a group of extremists who share the same perspective,” Blair told the soldiers.

Police said Sunday they had found 36 bodies in the Baghdad area, some of them showing signs of torture. The dead included four members of a Sunni tribe who met an Iraqi battalion commander to discuss security, the Iraqi army said.

In additional violence, two policemen, an Iraqi soldier and a municipal official were killed in Baghdad; and a police officer was slain in Kut, southeast of the capital.

AP-ES-12-17-06 1359EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.