Militants kidnap Iranian diplomat in Iraq
Militants in Iraq have kidnapped an Iranian diplomat and accused him of inciting sectarian strife in a country deeply divided between the resurgent Shi'ite Muslim majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslim minority.
A video tape from a group calling itself The Islamic Army in Iraq -- which was reported to have killed two Pakistani hostages last month -- showed a bearded man, wearing a white shirt in front of a black banner bearing the group's name.
It also showed a passport and business card which identified the hostage as Iranian diplomat Fereidoun Jahani.
"The group said in a statement it had kidnapped the Iranian consul in Kerbala because he had been involved in inciting sectarian strife and operating outside the sphere of diplomacy," the Dubai-based satellite channel Al Arabiya said Sunday.
"The group also warned Iran against flagrant interference in the affairs of Iraq," the television added. It did not mention any threats against the hostage or demands by the group.
Both Iraqi and U.S. officials are uneasy about attempts by officially Shi'ite Iran to gain influence among neighboring Iraq's restive Shi'ites and many Sunni Iraqis are deeply worried about the rising power of the long-suppressed Shi'ite majority.
Iraq's defense minister last week accused Iran of "blatant interference" in Iraq's affairs. Iran denies the charges.
Iran's embassy in Baghdad said Sunday Jahani had gone missing Wednesday as he was traveling from Baghdad to take up the new post of consul in the Shi'ite holy city Kerbala.
The Islamic Army in Iraq abducted a Filipino last month and threatened to kill him, but released him after the Philippines withdrew its forces from Iraq.
The group also claimed the kidnapping of two Pakistanis and an Iraqi in July and threatened to kill them if their company did not pull out of the country. The two Pakistanis were later reported killed, while the Iraqi was freed. Iran's Foreign Ministry said it was working with Iraqi authorities, the British embassy in Tehran as well the Swiss embassy which represents U.S. interests in Iran, to investigate the kidnapping.
"The issue is under investigation with sensitivity with all related officials in Iraq," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in a statement. "There is no exact information on the causes and motivation for this action."
Jahani was the second diplomat to be seized in Iraq. An Egyptian was captured last month and later released.
Other kidnappings have been aimed at countries with troops or economic interests in Iraq, but the seizure of the Iranian diplomat is a departure from that pattern, in that it is aimed at a country accused of acting against U.S. interests there.
An Iranian diplomat was shot dead in Baghdad in April at a time when Iran was trying to mediate between U.S. occupiers and radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Some 300 Iraqis have been killed in the southern holy city of Najaf since Thursday in fierce fighting between U.S. marines and Sadr's militiamen.
Iran's ISNA student news agency quoted an Iraqi police spokesman in Kerbala as saying 1,200 Iranians had been arrested there in the last 10 days. He said most had been deported to Iran, but 32 had been kept for questioning.
Tens of thousands of Iranians have flocked to the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf on pilgrimage since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein last year.
The Iraqi government is in control of Kerbala which, unlike Najaf, has seen no clashes in recent days.