Four U.S. civilian security guards and an Austrian remain missing after being ambushed at a police checkpoint -- and the facts surrounding the biggest single abduction of Americans in Iraq since the war began are still unclear.
The only claim of responsibility came from an obscure group calling itself the "Mujahadeen of Jerusalem Company," whose videotaped message was later broadcast on an Iranian-run satellite news station. The group demanded the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. The tape did not show any hostages or any proof that the group was actually holding them.
Nine other contractors were released almost immediately after Thursday's abduction near the Kuwait border.
Throughout Friday evening, the Iraqi police in Basra and the office of the local governor made conflicting claims to ABC News about the other five.
The governor's office said that Iraqi forces had freed "two western hostages suspected to be Americans."
The Basra police said that the body of an Austrian security expert kidnapped with the Americans had been delivered to the Basra morgue, and that a badly wounded American hostage had been delivered with him.
Neither claim appears to be true. The case seems to have been confused with another kidnapping in the same, lethal region.
Kidnapped in Broad Daylight
The men were seized in broad daylight when their huge convoy of more than 40 trucks was stopped at a bogus checkpoint along one of the main supply roads from Kuwait by armed men in police uniform.
The men hijacked 20 trucks and kidnapped 14 men in the space of a few minutes. The operation was described by U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell as "very well planned and orchestrated and deliberately conducted."
The convoy was operated by an American firm called Crescent Security based in Kuwait City.
Epidemic of Kidnappings
The prime suspects are the Shiite militias that have infiltrated the Iraqi police in the south and now reportedly have almost complete control over them.
There is a virtual epidemic of kidnappings involving armed Shiite factions or militias in southern Iraq that wear police or army uniforms and are thus able to act with impunity.
Kidnappings are spreading beyond the south, as well. The incident on Thursday was the second high-profile, mass kidnapping in Iraq in two days, following the Tuesday seizure of as many as 150 hostages from the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad by gunmen in the distinctive uniform of police commandos. In that case, a Shiite militia again is suspected -- the powerful Mehdi Army.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has been under American pressure to crack down on the militias. His response is that he will do it "in his own time."
But the militias are attached to the political parties that are part of his own, Shiite-dominated coalition government. To move against them, assuming he could, might be another step towards full-scale civil war.
In the meantime, the fate of the four American security guards and the Austrian remains unknown.
At least 370 civilian contractors have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war in kidnappings, beheadings, snipings, roadside bombs and other acts of violence. Almost half of those were U.S. citizens.