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Egypt's envoy to country is seized



Published: Sun, July 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Insurgents have killed more than 1,400 people since late April.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Gunmen seized Egypt's top envoy to Iraq, officials and witnesses said Sunday, in an apparent bid to discourage the country's Arab neighbors from bolstering ties to the embattled U.S.-backed government.

Insurgents killed at least three Iraqi policemen and wounded two American soldiers in a series of attacks across the insurgent heartland.

Visiting U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, meanwhile, praised Iraq's commitment to democracy during a surprise visit to the capital.

As White House counsel, Gonzales wrote a 2002 memo for President Bush contending the administration had the right to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties that provide protections to prisoners of war. Critics have said the memo helped lead to abuses of the type seen at Abu Ghraib.

What happened

Ihab al-Sherif, 51, chief of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Baghdad, was kidnapped Saturday night by about eight gunmen after he stopped to buy a newspaper in western Baghdad, witnesses said.

Al-Sherif, who had been in the country since June 1, was pistol-whipped and forced into the trunk of a car as the assailants shouted that he was an "American spy," the witnesses said on condition of anonymity.

In Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry confirmed the diplomat was missing and said contacts were under way with the Iraqi government "and all other sides" to win his release.

One of Iraq's most prominent Sunni Arab political organizations, the Iraqi Islamic Party, quickly condemned the kidnapping and demanded al-Sherif's "immediate release."

Al-Sherif was the highest-ranking foreign official to be kidnapped in Iraq, although a lower-ranking Egyptian diplomat was held briefly by insurgents last year. He was freed after Egypt reaffirmed that it would not send troops to Iraq.

Washington has been urging Arab nations to resume full diplomatic relations with the sovereign, elected Iraqi government, and al-Sherif's abduction appeared to serve as a warning against responding favorably to such overtures.

Last month, the Egyptian government said it would upgrade its mission in Iraq to full embassy status headed by an ambassador, which would have made al-Sherif the first Arab ambassador to Iraq's new government, although the timing of the move was uncertain.

In a message relayed by a deputy, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said al-Sherif was "Egypt's representative to the whole Iraqi people and that his legal status is the chief of the diplomatic mission and not ambassador."

The abduction occurred hours before Gonzales paid a surprise one-day visit to Iraq, where he praised the country's commitment to democracy despite sustained and deadly attacks by insurgents.

Aboard an Air Force plane to the Middle East, Gonzales said he wanted to convey to Iraqis the U.S. commitment to their nascent government. "We are doing a lot to promote democracy and the rule of law," Gonzales said.

He told U.S. troops and diplomats at the American Embassy that their mission in Iraq "is so very important to the security of our country and the promotion of freedom around the world. There is so much at stake here."

More than 1,400 people have been killed in insurgent attacks since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced his new government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds, on April 28.

Continued violence

In the latest violence, a car bomb killed three Iraqi policemen Sunday near the northern city of Kirkuk, and two U.S. soldiers were wounded in a suicide attack near a checkpoint in the volatile western city of Ramadi.

Late Sunday, Iraqi police reported a suicide attack on an Iraqi patrol along the dangerous Baghdad airport road. Police had no immediate casualty report. Five mortar rounds blasted an Iraqi army base in western Baghdad but there were no casualty reports, police said.

Also in Ramadi, a U.S. military helicopter caught fire Saturday night, destroying the $13.5 million CH-47 Chinook and injuring one crewman, the U.S. military said Sunday.

Also Sunday, two senior officials of the biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, were gunned down near Baqouba, police said. It appeared the killing was the latest in a series of Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiites.

Gunmen killed Shiite cleric Adil al-Janabi and one of his bodyguards in a drive-by shooting Saturday night in Baghdad, police said.

Also in Baghdad on Sunday, gunmen fired on a car carrying police Brig. Gen. Abdul Hussein Hamid Khalaf, wounding him and killing his son, police said. Industry Minister Osama Abdul Aziz Najafi escaped an assassination attempt Saturday night when gunmen fired on his convoy in western Baghdad, but four bodyguards were wounded.

The fresh attacks occurred a day after suicide bombers struck in Baghdad and a Shiite city south of the capital, killing 30 people and injuring nearly 50.

In the first attack, a bomber with explosives strapped to his body blew himself up outside a recruiting station for police special forces in western Baghdad, killing at least 16 other people and wounding 22.

In Hillah, a mostly Shiite city 60 miles south of Baghdad, two suicide attackers struck Saturday night. The death count increased to 13, including 11 policemen and the two attackers, and 31 wounded, police said Sunday. A Web statement in the name of Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the Baghdad and Hillah bombings, although its authenticity could not be confirmed.

In London, the British government said Sunday that it had raised concerns with the interim Iraq government about reports that its police force had abused prisoners.

The Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office said they were "deeply concerned" by reports of the abuse of suspected terrorists held in Iraqi police cells.




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