Gunmen kidnap Iraqi official in Baghdad

Thursday, August 11, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen kidnapped a senior Interior Ministry official in the heart of the Iraqi capital Wednesday, and the U.S. military reported that five more American soldiers had been killed.

The latest violence came as Iraqi politicians intensified talks to try to meet a Monday deadline for finalizing a constitution.

Brig. Gen. Khudayer Abbas, chief of the administrative affairs office in the Interior Ministry, was dragged from his car on Andalus Square and spirited away in another vehicle, according to police Maj. Abbas Mohammed Salman.

No group claimed responsibility. The Interior Ministry supervises police and elite paramilitary units that are at the forefront of the fight against insurgents.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed shortly before midnight Tuesday when insurgents attacked their 10-member patrol as it investigated explosions near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. A fifth American soldier was killed Tuesday by small arms fire near Habaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad.

The Beiji attack was launched when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb, then poured rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire on the unit, the U.S. command said. Five soldiers and a U.S. civilian contractor were wounded.

Late Wednesday, five Iraqi soldiers were killed and two were wounded when insurgents attacked a checkpoint about 12 miles south of Beiji, police said.

Gunmen also killed police Capt. Mahmoud Hassan in Baghdad's western Bayaa district, police said.

Names of the U.S. soldiers killed in Beiji were not released. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said five members of the Pennsylvania National Guard had been killed in action in Iraq. However, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania National Guard, Capt. Cory P. Angell, would say only a guard unit suffered casualties that included dead and wounded during an attack in Beiji.

The deaths brought the number of American troops killed this month in Iraq to 37. At least 1,841 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Elsewhere, five U.S. soldiers were slightly injured when a car bomb exploded in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. Four civilians and three police were killed, according to 1st Lt. Thair Mahmoud.

In western Iraq, the U.S. Marines announced the end of a weeklong offensive in the Euphrates Valley codenamed Operation Quick Strike. Twenty Marines were killed last week as Operation Quick Strike got under way.

They included six Marine snipers killed Aug. 1 near Haditha. Two days later, 14 Marines and a civilian translator died when a huge blast hit their armored vehicle.

Marines said nine car bombs were discovered during the sweep, the latest in a series of operations aimed at curbing insurgent activity in the volatile Euphrates valley -- a major infiltration route for foreign fighters from Syria.

"This is another operation, similar to those conducted before, that has disrupted the insurgents' ability to operate freely," Col. Stephen W. Davis said.

The Bush administration is hoping that political progress will eventually deflate the Sunni Arab-led rebellion and enable the United States and its international partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

Key to that strategy is a democratic constitution followed by elections in December. Iraq's parliament is to approve the draft charter by Monday, but major differences among ethnic and political factions threatened to delay completion of the document.

After two days of joint talks failed to produce a breakthrough, Iraq's political factions met separately Wednesday -- apparently to review their positions to determine which issues they would insist upon and how they might compromise to meet the deadline.

The major obstacle is the Kurdish demand that Iraq be transformed into a federal state. The Kurds have insisted on federalism to protect their self-rule in three northern provinces.

Sunni Arabs oppose federalism, fearing the Kurds want to break away from Iraq and declare independence. The Shiites are divided, with some factions wanting to build a Shiite federal region in the south.

Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said Kurdish leaders were under pressure from their people to stand fast on their demand. Sunni Arabs said they were under pressure from the Sunni rank-and-file to reject it.

"Everyone is trying to convince his own people and we haven't reached an agreement on federalism," Othman said.

In the holy city of Najaf, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met separately with two key Shiite figures -- Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It was not known what was discussed, but al-Sistani has taken a keen interest in the new constitution. Al-Sistani's endorsement enabled al-Hakim's party to win the biggest number of seats in parliament in the Jan. 30 elections.

Al-Hakim heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a mainstream group. Al-Sadr is an outspoken opponent of the American military presence here.

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