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Iraqi police search for diplomats



Published: Sat, July 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



In less than three weeks, five key diplomats from Islamic countries have been targeted.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Police tightened security in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood Friday as the search intensified for two Algerian diplomats kidnapped there. At least 16 people died in attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.

More police were on the streets and motorists reported extra checkpoints Friday in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, where top Algerian envoy Ali Belaroussi, 62, and fellow Algerian diplomat, Azzedine Belkadi, 47, were seized the day before. They were not traveling with bodyguards, officials said.

The kidnappings brought to five the number of key diplomats from Islamic countries targeted in Baghdad in less than three weeks in an attempt to undermine support for the Iraqi government among Arab and Muslim nations.

Police officials said they suspected the diplomats and their kidnappers may still be in the Mansour area because witnesses reported the abduction too quickly for the gunmen to have gone far.

Egypt envoy

Egypt's top envoy, Ihab al-Sherif, was seized at gunpoint in another western Baghdad neighborhood on July 2, also without security. Three days later, gunmen opened fire on senior envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain in separate attacks police described as kidnap attempts.

The Pakistani diplomat's security guards returned fire and the assailants fled. The Bahraini, who was slightly wounded, had no bodyguards, but a traffic policeman saw the attack, fired his pistol in the air and the assailants fled, police said.

Al-Qaida's wing in Iraq, the country's most feared terror group, claimed responsibility in Web statements for kidnapping al-Sherif and later claimed to have killed him. It warned Muslim nations against ties with Baghdad.

Four people -- one Iraqi soldier and three civilians -- were killed in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes there, police said. The other 11 victims were Iraqi police or soldiers killed in scattered, small-scale attacks throughout Baghdad.

Also Friday, the U.S. military announced that a Marine was killed the day before in a roadside bombing while conducting combat operations west of Baghdad. At least 1,774 members of the U.S. military had died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that progress on the political front will in time undermine the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and restore stability that has deteriorated sharply since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Constitution commission

A key step is the new constitution, which is to be approved by parliament by Aug. 15. Two months later, the charter goes before Iraqi voters in a referendum. If the document is approved, voters will choose a new government in mid-December elections.

The drafters of the constitution may leave some contentious issues -- the borders of a Kurdish self-governing region and a formula to divvy up oil revenues -- unresolved in order to finish the document by a mid-August deadline, a Western diplomat familiar with the deliberations said. Other issues such as women's rights and the role of Islam also remain undecided but will likely be resolved, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Prospects for meeting the deadline were thrown in doubt last week when Sunni Arab members of the drafting committee suspended their participation after the assassination of two colleagues.

Nasir al-Ani, one of the Sunni members, said he and his colleagues would not attend Saturday's scheduled meeting of the commission.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the committee, complained the Americans were pressuring the Iraqis to meet the deadline "so that President Bush can tell his people that the job is done."

"They want it for their internal affairs, not for the Iraqis," Othman said.

Border clash?

Meanwhile, Syria claimed its border guards were fired on by U.S. and Iraqi troops. A statement issued Thursday cited "about 100 armed clashes, some of which were carried out by American soldiers who opened fire randomly." It did not elaborate.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Johnson, the top commander for U.S. forces in western Iraq, including the border area near Syria, said he had no reports of such cross-border fire.

"[I] certainly haven't had any recent reports of any cross-border firing at those sites up there in our area of responsibility. We'd had a couple in the past, but they've been investigated and we were unable to determine where the rounds came from," he said.




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