Militants abduct Egyptian diplomat in Iraq
Militants kidnapped a senior Egyptian diplomat as he left a mosque Friday and demanded his country abandon any plans to send security experts to support Iraq's new government, according to a video broadcast on the Al-Jazeera television station.
The abduction of the diplomat threatened to undermine efforts of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday to persuade Arab and Muslim countries to provide troops to protect the U.N. mission in Iraq.
A separate militant group holding seven foreign truck drivers, including one Egyptian, announced a new set of demands in a new video, insisting that their Kuwaiti employer pay compensation to those killed by U.S. forces in the city of Fallujah. They have threatened to begin beheading the hostages starting Saturday.
The practice of beheading hostages has stirred opposition in Iraq, with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led a two-month uprising against U.S. forces beginning in April, joining the criticism Friday.
"We condemn what some people are doing regarding the beheading of prisoners and it is illegal according to Islamic law," al-Sadr said at the Kufa mosque south of Baghdad, where he led Friday prayers. "Anybody doing this is a criminal and we will punish him according to Islamic law."
Al-Sadr's word carries weight with many within the country's Shiite majority but is essentially meaningless to the Sunni Muslims believed responsible for many of the kidnappings and killings.
Militants have kidnapped roughly 70 foreigners, many of them poorly guarded truck drivers, in recent months in an effort to force countries to withdraw troops from Iraq and to scare away contractors working on reconstruction projects. At least three hostages have been beheaded.
Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, the Egyptian, was the first diplomat taken hostage, and his capture signaled that insurgents are targeting more influential foreigners.
Only days earlier, Qutb had embraced freed Egyptian truck driver Alsayeid Mohammed Alsayeid Algarabawi, who was released by a different militant group Monday.
An Egyptian diplomat in Baghdad, who declined to be identified, said Qutb was abducted Friday as he left a mosque. The black-clad militants, calling themselves "The Lions of Allah Brigade," claimed they abducted Qutb because Egypt said it was prepared to deploy security experts to help Iraq's interim government, according to Al-Jazeera. No specific threat against Qutb was mentioned.
Egypt has offered to train Iraqi police and security personnel in Egypt, but declined to deploy military forces in Iraq.
In the video — narrated by a news reader — Qutb is seated in front of six masked men, some holding rifles. He said he was being treated well, adding that the Egyptian mission in Baghdad was not cooperating with the U.S.-led multinational force and was only trying to help the reconstruction of Iraq, according to the newscaster.
While Egyptians have shown sympathy for countrymen who went to Iraq to work and ended up held hostage, the kidnapping of a diplomat was likely to focus public attention on their government's policies toward Iraq. Many Egyptians and other Arabs extoll Iraqis fighting Allawi's U.S.-backed government as freedom fighters and accuse their own governments of siding with hated America against Arabs.
The crisis came amid a new surge in kidnappings.
A group calling itself "The Holders of the Black Banners" released videos Wednesday and Thursday saying it was holding three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian hostage and would behead one every 72 hours beginning Saturday night if the Kuwaiti trucking company they work for did not stop doing business in Iraq and their countries did not pull their citizens from here.
In a new video broadcast on Al-Jazeera on Friday, the group added to its demands, calling for the release of all Iraqi detainees in Kuwaiti and U.S. prisons, and calling on the drivers' Kuwaiti employer to compensate relatives of people killed in Fallujah.
The new demands were almost certain to go unmet, but the tape Friday — also narrated by the news reader — did not appear to repeat the beheading threat and bore no other specified threat against the men.
The militants gave the company a 48-hour deadline, but it was unclear that meant the initial deadline was extended until Sunday.
Iraq has been wracked by 15 months of car bombings, assassinations, sabotage, kidnappings and other violence intended to drive out coalition forces and hamper reconstruction. In response, U.S. forces launched the strike in the volatile city of Fallujah early Friday targeting suspected terrorists linked to al-Zarqawi.
Dr. Kamal Al-Ani, a local hospital official, said the attack wounded five civilians, including three children. Witnesses denied the house was harboring militants.
"We have nothing to do with the resistance or al-Zarqawi. These are pretexts used by the U.S. military to terrorize the people in Fallujah because U.S. soldiers are unable to face the insurgents," said Saddam Jassim, the home's owner.
The military said the strike, like others in Fallujah, was conducted in coordination with the interim government. The military has been limited to such strikes since the Marines pulled back from Fallujah — a focal point of resistance to the U.S. occupation — after besieging it for three weeks in April.
The military claimed seven strikes in the city in roughly a month "have eroded Zarqawi's base of support and ability to carry out terror attacks against security forces and the people of Iraq."
Elsewhere Friday, one person was killed and nine people wounded — including a pregnant woman and two children — when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad's northern suburb of Toubechi as a bus passed by, officials said.
Gunmen killed a retired Iraqi officer, Maj. Gen. Salim Majeed Blesh, 58, and his neighbor, Sami Noori, 68, as they headed for prayers in the northern city of Mosul, police said.
Blesh had run a Mosul employment office set up by the former U.S. occupation government; his killing appeared part of a wave of attacks against police and officials working with U.S. forces.
Also, two U.S. soldiers were killed and one was wounded in a roadside bomb Thursday near Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. The military announced that two collisions between armored vehicles and civilian vehicles killed 11 Iraqis.