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Eight hostages seized as nationwide polls cancelled
Updated: 2004-09-25 11:31

Eight telecom workers became the latest victims of kidnappers determined to drive foreigners out of Iraq, as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi asked world leaders to back upcoming elections in Iraq, amid confusion over whether the vote would take place as scheduled in January.

Eight telecom workers became the latest victims of kidnappers determined to drive foreigners out of Iraq, as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi asked world leaders to back upcoming elections in Iraq.[AFP]
Three people died and 14 were wounded in an explosion in a central Baghdad square, medics said. The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.

The blast was in front of a restaurant and a courthouse on the east bank of the Tigris which flows through the capital.

At the United Nations, Allawi made an impassioned appeal for international support, particularly in the fight against the terrorists he said were trying to wreak havoc in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein a year and a half ago.

"Our struggle is your struggle, our victory will be your victory. And if we are defeated, it will be your defeat," he said in a speech at UN headquarters.

In Washington, the US State Department number-two said every effort would be made to ensure that all eligible Iraqi voters take part.

"Is it going to be messy? Yes, it will," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in congressional testimony.

"But it's going to be fair and transparent."

However, Allawi had earlier met with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said that more US troops may have to be sent to Iraq to provide security for elections, and that a vote may not be held in all parts of the country if there is too much violence.

In Iraq's kidnapping epidemic, the fate of British engineer Kenneth Bigley, the sole surviving member of a trio of Western hostages threatened with death, remained unknown, as did that of two Italian women aid workers seized earlier this month.

Two Egyptian engineers named as Mustafa Abdel Latif and Mahmud Turki, working for Egyptian telecom giant Orascom, were snatched at gunpoint from their central Baghdad office late Thursday, an interior ministry spokesman said.

Six other employees of the company -- four Egyptians and two Iraqis -- were seized near the troubled Syrian border town of Qaim on Wednesday, an expatriate employee of the company told AFP.

Cairo confirmed the abduction of those four nationals.

The Egyptian mission in Baghdad was in touch with "different circles with which it has strong ties in order to guarantee the release of the Egyptian hostages," a statement released in Cairo said.

The abductions were the latest in close to 150 kidnappings of foreigners reported in Iraq since April. At least two Egyptian hostages have been executed in recent weeks and two others released.

A video of the 62-year-old Bigley pleading with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites) to meet his Al-Qaeda-linked captors' demands for the release of Iraqi women prisoners was aired on Thursday but there was still no word on the Englishman's fate.

A group of Iraqis started distributing 50,000 pamphlets with Bigley's picture in the upmarket Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad where he was kidnapped last week, together with two US colleagues.

The Unity and Holy War group of alleged Al-Qaeda operative Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi -- the most-wanted man in Iraq -- already beheaded the two Americans after the coalition refused to release the two Iraqi women it detains.

US artillery and aircraft pounded southern sectors of the Sunni Arab insurgent enclave of Fallujah, residents said.

The military confirmed it had fired artillery at suspected insurgents but said there were no air strikes.

The US military has intensified strikes on Fallujah this month, targeting alleged hideouts of Zarqawi.

The city poses the most serious obstacle to the holding of nationwide elections as planned in January, but the US-backed prime minister was adamant during meetings with US officials in Washington Thursday that the vote would go ahead as planned.

"I know that some have speculated, even doubted, whether this date can be met," Allawi told US lawmakers. "So let me be absolutely clear. Elections will occur in Iraq on time."

US President George W. Bush acknowledged that "terrorist violence may well escalate as the January elections draw near" and cautioned the Iraqi government and its allies against lowering their guard.

But Rumsfeld spelled out US misgivings about the possibility of nationwide polls as soon as January.

"Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country but some places you couldn't, because the violence was too great. Well, so be it."

US officials in Baghdad have said that contingency plans exist to defer the polls in the Sunni-dominated province of Al-Anbar, west of Baghdad, where insurgents effectively control some of the bigger population centers.

Rumsfeld also suggested that US troops could start pulling out of Iraq before the country is completely stabilized.

"Any implication that that place has to be peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and US forces would obviously be, I think, unwise, because it has never been peaceful and perfect, and it isn't likely to be," he said after meeting Allawi.

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