Armed men abduct two Algerian diplomats in Baghdad

Friday, July 22, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen seized two Algerian diplomats Thursday -- including the country's top envoy to Iraq -- in the latest attacks aimed at scaring away Muslim diplomats and undermining the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

The abductions brought to five the number of key diplomats from Islamic countries targeted in Baghdad in less than three weeks. The top Egyptian envoy was reportedly killed after being captured, and two apparent kidnapping attempts against diplomats were foiled.

The chief of Algeria's mission in Iraq, charge d'affaires Ali Belaroussi, and another Algerian diplomat, Azzedine Ben Kadi, were dragged from their car along with their driver in west Baghdad's upscale Mansour district, police and Algerian officials said.

Belaroussi, a career diplomat, has been in Iraq for about two years, and served as financial director at Algeria's embassy in Paris from 1997 to 2002, Algerian officials said.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari pledged to increase security for diplomats but warned them to avoid going to dangerous areas. The Mansour district has been the site of a number of kidnappings, including that of Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong and Briton Kenneth Bigley. All three were later killed.

Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Al-Khafaji told Al-Jazeera television that the Algerian envoy had refused Iraqi offers to provide him with bodyguards, saying he didn't need protection because "Algeria's relationship with the Iraqis is good."

No group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the Algerians.

On July 2, Egyptian diplomat Ihab al-Sherif was seized at gunpoint in another western Baghdad neighborhood. Three days later, gunmen opened fire on senior envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain in what police said were kidnap attempts.

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.

The militants want to seize "as many ambassadors as we can" to punish governments that support Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, according to Internet statements attributed to the group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

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 Web sites.

Also Thursday, efforts to draft a new constitution by an Aug. 15 deadline suffered a setback when Sunni Arab committee members announced they would not participate until the government accepts demands that one Shiite official said are impossible to meet.

The constitution is considered crucial to putting together a broad-based government so the United States and its international partners can begin scaling back their military presence in Iraq next year.

Elsewhere, at least 17 people were killed in insurgent attacks, including two suicide car bombings against Iraqi security forces. The U.S. command said an American sailor died of wounds suffered last week in Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad.

The death brought to at least 1,773 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Sunni Arab members of a constitutional committee met to review their participation in the drafting of a new constitution -- a process they decided to boycott after two Sunnis helping to draft the charter were gunned down Tuesday.

The Sunnis decided to continue their boycott until an international inquiry is launched into the killings and Sunnis receive a greater voice in drafting the charter, said Kamal Hamdoun, one of the 12 remaining Sunni committee members.

A Sunni Arab role is considered essential in luring members of the influential minority away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

A Shiite member of the constitutional commission, Hussein Athab, complained the Sunni statement would make it more difficult to finish the constitution on time. The demands "are impossible to be met and no one can accept them," Athab said.

The Sunni statement "is no way to have a dialogue," said commission chairman Humam Hammoudi. He expressed hope that the Sunnis would reconsider before the next drafting session this weekend.

If the Shiite and Kurdish committee members decide to try to meet the Aug. 15 deadline without Sunni participation, questions would be raised over the legitimacy of a charter and whether it would win Sunni approval in an October referendum.

Under rules set down during the U.S. occupation, if two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the constitution, it will not be ratified. Sunni Arabs are believed to form a majority in at least four provinces.

In another potential stumbling block, Kurdish commission members submitted a proposal to include in the constitution an expansion of the Kurdish self-ruled region.

The proposal would extend the boundaries to as far south as Badra and Jassan, about 90 miles southeast of Baghdad, and would include the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

Those changes would be unacceptable to many Sunni Arabs, who oppose Kurdish calls for federalism and who would not tolerate expanding Kurdistan into areas where large numbers of Sunni Arabs live.

Al-Arabiya television broadcast new video of Saddam Hussein undergoing interrogation by an Iraqi judge. The ousted dictator complained that he has not been allowed sufficient access to his lawyer and that proceedings against him were "a game."

On Sunday, the government announced the first criminal charges against Saddam for his alleged role in the 1982 massacre of Shiites north of Baghdad. He and three other defendants could face the death penalty if convicted.

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