Baghdad: Armed men have kidnapped seven young Iraqi anti-corruption activists in central Baghdad, security sources and a civil society leader said on Tuesday.
"Unidentified gunmen in SUVs abducted seven university students early Monday morning," an interior ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said the fate of the seven, who were snatched from the Battaween area, was unknown.
Jassem al-Helfi, a leading figure of the anti-graft demonstrations that have been taking place almost weekly for around two years, said the seven were abducted at 1:30 am.
"An armed gang kidnapped seven students who are active in peaceful protests from their apartment in Battaween," he said.
It was not clear who the kidnappers were nor whether any demands had already been made for the activists' release.
However the students' profile and the kidnappers' modus operandi suggest that the motivations are political.
"These young people stood up against corruption and the system of sectarian quotas in politics and in favour of a technocratic government," Helfi said.
He saw the kidnapping as "an attack on freedom of expression and a move aimed at instilling fear in the population and snuffing out the protest movement."
"But this is a national cause and it will not be silenced... Such acts will only increase the determination of the demonstrators," he said.
Almost every week, thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad, usually a few blocks from where the kidnapping took place, and across cities in southern Iraq for anti- corruption rallies.
Supporters of the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr form the bulk of the protesters but the movement also includes prominent artists as well as activists affiliated to the communist party, among others.
Their main demands are for tougher measures against corruption, reform of the electoral law and a new government run by technocrats instead of political party leaders and their cronies, whom they blame for much of the country's woes.