updated 3/29/2006 1:19:29 AM ET 2006-03-29T06:19:29

Masked gunmen, many in military uniform, stormed into a currency exchange and two electronic stores in broad daylight Tuesday, kidnapping 24 Iraqis and making off with tens of thousands of dollars.

In other violence Tuesday, one U.S. soldier was killed and three were wounded when their Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb west of Baghdad, the military said. South of Baghdad, another U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire.

With 40 Iraqis taken hostage in less than 24 hours, politicians returned to talks on forming a government after a one-day boycott by Shiite leaders. The United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, shunned talks Monday to protest a U.S.-backed raid on what Iraqis say was a mosque. At least 16 people were killed in the assault, which freed an Iraqi hostage.

In Washington, President Bush said he was “pleased to hear ... that the Iraqis are now back at the table.”

Bush spoke a day after The Associated Press reported that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad asked one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite politicians to seek the withdrawal of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s contentious nomination for a second term.

Two aides to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim told the AP that Khalilzad urged their boss during a meeting Saturday to personally deliver the message to al-Jaafari. Instead, lower-ranking members of al-Hakim’s political bloc passed the U.S. message to members of al-Jaafari’s party, who delivered it to him, the aides said.

Unity government
The United States has been pushing Iraq to speed up the formation of a unity government, seen as the best option to subdue the violence gripping several Iraqi cities — and to allow for the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal this summer.

But the talks are fragile, in a country with deep sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis and daily violent death tolls in the dozens. Well over 1,000 people have been killed since the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite shrine.

Police discovered 17 more corpses Tuesday, all men from Baghdad who were handcuffed and shot in the head. A majority had been dumped under a bridge. Hundreds of bodies have been found since the shrine bombing, most believed the work of sectarian killers or death squads operating inside the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry.

Dozens of other Iraqis were wounded and at least seven killed in drive-by shootings and car and roadside bombings Tuesday.

Gunmen trying to shoot a Tikrit council member killed his son instead, police said. Three Iraqis in the southern city of Nasiriyah died in a blast as they tried to plant a bomb at the house of an Iraqi journalist working for the U.S.-funded Iraqi television station Alhurra, the head of the Nasiriyah journalists’ union said.

Two suicide bombers died after detonating their explosives in front of a police station in Iskandariyah, wounding 11 policemen and a female bystander, police Lt. Col. Khalil Abdul-Ridha said.

The stunning string of mass kidnappings continued Tuesday when gunmen stormed into three Baghdad businesses and left with bundles of cash and 24 Iraqi hostages.

The attacks occurred within a 30-minute period, and police were investigating whether they were linked.

Short on money?
Police Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi said the assailants were likely insurgents who were running out of money.

The 15 gunmen who stormed the currency exchange in Baghdad’s southwest Harthiyah neighborhood at about 1 p.m. wore military uniforms, but arrived in civilian cars. They stole tens of thousands of dollars and millions of Iraqi dinars before taking six people from the store, police said.

About the same time, seven gunmen wearing civilian clothes ran into a Daewoo International electronics store in the downtown Karradah district and kidnapped three employees, including the store manager, police said. They did not appear to have taken any money, al-Mohammedawi said.

At 1:30 p.m., gunmen also wearing military uniforms, masks and helmets stormed a different branch of the same electronics company on Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad and grabbed 15 employees, al-Mohammedawi said. The kidnappers arrived in 16 civilian cars.

The mass kidnappings came a day after gunmen abducted 16 employees of an Iraqi trading company in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour neighborhood.

They also wore uniforms and masks and showed up in four civilian cars at the headquarters of the Saeed Import and Export Co. Police said the kidnappers went through papers and computer files before leaving with their captives, al-Mohammedawi said.

Rafidh Salim Saleh, a worker at the company who avoided capture, said the firm had been operating in Iraq for more than 30 years and was involved with an electricity project in Youssifiyah, south of Baghdad.

“The company has no political or terrorist ties or any activities that are anti-government,” he said. “We don’t even keep a gun.”

Earlier this month, there was another audacious kidnapping, this one on a locally owned security firm. Gunmen dressed as Interior Ministry commandos stormed into the al-Rawafid Security Co.’s east Baghdad headquarters and took away 50 people, many of them former military personnel from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Those employees have not been heard from since the March 8 attack.

Thousands of people have been kidnapped in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, fueling the fear and uncertainty felt by most Iraqis who are looking to their leaders for resolution.

Politicians meeting Tuesday debated what the security powers of the new government’s prime minister should be, but reached no conclusions, Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said. Talks were expected to continue Wednesday.

With Tuesday’s deaths, at least 2,325 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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