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Iraq's minister for higher education and scientific research, Abd Dhiab al-Ajili has temporarily resigned from the Iraqi cabinet over the mass abduction of up to 150 people from an office of the higher-education ministry in Baghdad. 

Al-Ajili stepped down one day after the kidnapping that occurred at around 9.30am local time on Tuesday 14 November in Baghdad's Karradah district.

Gunmen rounded up academics, staff and visitors in the research institute, which grants scholarships to Iraqi professors and students wishing to study abroad.

About 70 of the hostages have since been released but as many as 80 are still being held, and some have been tortured and killed, Al-Ajili said yesterday (16 November), according to Reuters news agency.

Al-Ajili 's decision to boycott government activities marks his frustration at the security situation in Iraq. Since 2003 nearly 200 academics are thought to have been killed and hundreds have fled the country (see Nearly 200 Iraqi academics killed since 2003).

"I have suspended my participation as a minister with the government until those people who have been kidnapped are released," Al-Ajili told Reuters.

"If I can't save and protect the lives of the people in my ministry, whether they are professors, employees or students, there is no use of my staying."

After the abducations Al-Ajili immediately ordered the closure of Baghdad's universities, saying he was "not ready to see more professors get killed".

Malik Alasmar, an Iraqi researcher based at the University of Ghent in Belgium, told SciDev.Net: "This event marks a very frightening and important twist in the kidnapping and killing campaign of Iraqi scientists, as it moves from killing single scientists to groups of employees and scientists at a science building".

"I think resignation is about the only option available to minister Al-Ajili," Nabil Al-Tikriti, an Iraqi assistant professor at the US-based University of Mary Washington, told SciDev.Net. "It is clear that he is not in a position to protect his ministry staff."

But Alasmar warned that the resignation and the closure of universities will not stop the problem and will instead further hinder scientific development.

"Iraqi scientists and research buildings need security, which is the responsibility of the Iraqi police, security agencies and the US-led coalition forces on the Iraqi ground," he said, adding that there needs to be an international investigation into the abduction.

In a speech at Baghdad University to calm shocked professors and students on 15 November, Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said the kidnappers were "worse than extremists because they kidnapped intellectuals and prevented universities from executing their role".