Kidnappers threaten to kill top Egyptian in Iraq

Kidnappers of Egypt’s top diplomat in Iraq have threatened to kill him because Egypt has allied with “Jews and Christians,” according to a statement posted on Wednesday on an al-Qaeda-linked website.

Al-Qaeda’s religious court decided to hand over Ihab al-Sherif to its fighters “to carry out the punishment of apostasy against him”, said the statement on the site associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Under Islam, apostasy, or changing religion, is punishable by death.

The statement was ominous because al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been responsible for beheading several foreign hostages, including American Nicholas Berg. Al-Zarqawi’s group also has claimed responsibility for numerous car-bombings in Iraq—many against Iraqi civilians.

Since al-Sherif (51) was taken captive on Saturday night, two more diplomats from Muslim countries have been ambushed in suspected kidnap attempts as part of what Iraqi officials say is an effort to sow a climate of fear and discourage Arab and Islamic countries from strengthening their ties to Iraq’s new government.

Earlier on Wednesday, the same website posted pictures of the Egyptian envoy’s identification cards, saying it was proof that al-Qaeda in Iraq had taken the envoy.

The pictures showed the front and back of five ID cards in al-Sherif’s name.
His Egyptian driver’s licence and a foreign ministry card showed his photograph.

“These are the personal identification cards of the ambassador of the idols,” the group said.

The statement, which threatened to kill al-Sherif, said: “The sharia court of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organisation has decided to transfer the apostate ambassador of Egypt, which has allied itself to the Jews and Christians, to the Mujahedin to carry out the punishment of apostasy against him.”

Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

In an audiotape on the same website, the reputed leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq purportedly said the country’s security forces are as great an enemy as the Americans.

Meanwhile, a senior aide to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visited Bahrain’s diplomatic mission on Wednesday, saying the recent spate of attacks against Arab envoys is aimed at forcing embassies to withdraw from Iraq.

Sheikh Hassan al-Ithari said the meeting was part of al-Sadr’s desire to hear Arab sentiment about the attacks. Al-Sadr aides plan to visit between six and seven diplomatic missions in the coming days.

“We think there is a deliberate plan to force the embassies from Iraq and make Iraq a den for terrorists,” al-Ithari told reporters.

Killings continue

Also on Wednesday, gunmen killed four police officers and wounded at least nine more in separate attacks in Baghdad.

Gunmen killed Captain Hazim Jabbar, a member of the police special commando brigade, police said. Jabbar worked as a bodyguard for a consultant to former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Three other police, including two commandoes, were killed in separate incidents, police said. Nine police, including a brigadier general, were wounded in a series of attacks, officials said.

A United States senator who criticised US President George Bush’s Iraq policy at recent congressional hearings is in Baghdad for meetings with politicians, officials said.

Senator Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s senior Democrat, is accompanied by several members of his staff, US embassy spokesperson Adam Hobson said.

Also on Wednesday, a member of the biggest Shi’ite militia, the Badr Brigade, was killed in an ambush in Baghdad, police said. An Iraqi civilian who had been “cooperative” with the Americans was shot dead on his way to work north of Baghdad near Tarmiya, police added.

A US soldier was killed on Tuesday and two were wounded by a roadside bomb north-east of Baghdad, the US military said. One Iraqi soldier died and three were injured when a suicide car bomber struck their checkpoint late on Tuesday 32km south of Kirkuk, Iraqi officials said.

Iraqi security forces have been increasingly targeted by insurgents to shake public confidence in the new government elected in January. That has led to public criticism from some Iraqis who support attacks against Americans and other foreigners but not their fellow citizens.

Troops and police ‘legitimate’ targets

In an audiotape found Wednesday on the web, a speaker said to be al-Zarqawi insisted that Iraqi troops and police are as legitimate a target as the Americans. The comments appeared aimed at discouraging insurgents from entering talks with the Iraqi government.

“Some say that the resistance is divided into two groups—an honorable resistance that fights the non-believer-occupier and a dishonorable resistance that fights Iraqis,” the speaker said. “We announce that the Iraqi army is an army of apostates and mercenaries that has allied itself with the Crusaders and came to destroy Islam and fight Muslims. We will fight it.”

The speaker also announced the formation of a new terror command to fight Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite militia. Al-Zarqawi’s attacks against Iraqi Shi’ites, who comprise an estimated 60% of the country’s 26-million people, have raised fears that this nation could descend into civil war.

It was impossible to determine whether the speaker was al-Zarqawi, although the voice sounded like ones on tapes US officials have verified as coming from al-Zarqawi.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials have said US representatives have participated in meetings with Sunni insurgents in an effort to help the Iraqi government draw militants into the political process.

The speaker on the tape tacitly acknowledged pressure to abandon the struggle against the Americans and their Iraqi allies, saying he was “saddened and burdened” by people “advising me not to persist in fighting in Iraq”.

He also said the Americans began speaking of negotiations to end the conflict after al-Qaeda had “humiliated” US forces on the battlefield.

Rumsfeld has insisted the talks with insurgents did not involve negotiations with al-Zarqawi and other suspected terrorists.

In the attacks against diplomats, Bahraini envoy Hassan Malallah al-Ansari was slightly wounded as he drove to work on Tuesday in the Mansour district. Pakistan’s ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan escaped injury later Tuesday when gunmen in two cars fired on his convoy in a kidnap attack in the same district, security officials said.

A total of 49 countries or entities have some form of diplomatic representation in Iraq, including 18 Arab or non-Arab Muslim countries, according to Iraq’s foreign ministry and country websites.—Sapa-AP

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