By Mariam Fam ~ The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A team of kidnappers grabbed two Americans and a Briton in a dawn raid on their home on a leafy Baghdad street Thursday -- a bold abduction that underlines the increasing danger for foreigners in the embattled capital as violence soars ahead of national elections planned for early next year.
West of the capital, U.S. forces launched attacks Thursday in the Sunni insurgent strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi, killing up to 60 insurgents in strikes against allies of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a military statement said. The military said that the "foreign fighters" were killed near Fallujah. Fallujah General Hospital said they were treating 14 wounded, mainly women and children.
The military launched what it called a "precision strike" against a house in Fallujah and followed it with a second strike in a nearby town. The second strike destroyed three buildings allegedly used by Zarqawi's network.
Also Thursday, three U.S. Marines assigned to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed by hostile fire in separate incidents in the western Anbar province while conducting security operations, the military said. One Marine died at the scene and the two others died later of their wounds. No other details were released.
The U.S. Embassy identified the kidnapped Americans as Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, but the identity of the British man was not disclosed.
The three worked for Gulf Services Co., a United Arab Emirates-based construction company. "They were doing work under contracts with them in Baghdad," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The abduction took place in the al-Mansour neighborhood, one of the most affluent in Baghdad. Foreign embassies and prominent Iraqi politicians are based in the neighborhood.
The team of about 10 attackers drove to the head of the tree-lined street in a minivan, walked up to the house, circumvented a concrete wall and snatched the Westerners without a gunfight, said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, an Interior Ministry official.
Nineteen-year-old Ziad Tareq said he was walking down the street when he saw a man dressed in black, his face covered with a red Arab headdress, dragging one of the Westerners by the collar and pushing him into a car parked outside the house.
A neighbor, who identified herself only as Um Ibrahim, said she was awakened by the voices of men giving orders. "Walk. Get in," she said she heard men say in Arabic. "I thought they were stealing a car and I was scared, but my mother told me that they might be some people fixing the generator," she said.
"These are kind people who have come to rebuild Iraq," she added. "Why did this happen to them?"
Neighbors knew the foreigners because they had allowed them to use their generator for electricity during Baghdad's sweltering summer.
One resident, who would give his name only as Majid for fear of reprisal, said he left his house about 6 a.m. during a power outage to turn on the communal generator.
"I noticed unusual movement in the garage. I heard voices that sounded like someone was trying to drag somebody else," he said. "I was frightened and left the area, but when I came back to the foreigners' house, I saw that the outer gate was open and the foreigners' car had gone."
Some neighbors said the men had been living at the house for several months and maintained a low-profile, rarely going out in evenings and receiving few visitors. Some said an Arab man, probably a Palestinian, lived with them but appeared to have left the country a few days ago.
Several neighbors said the men had at least two guards who worked in shifts, and one said the guards were unarmed. Others said the guard hadn't showed up, prompting some of the foreigners to open their black iron gate and go out in their underwear during the power outage to turn on the generator. It wasn't clear if that was the moment the kidnappers seized to snatch the men.
There were no blast walls or signs of extra security outside the home of the two Americans and the Briton. Children in the house next door easily climbed the wall between the two buildings and peered down after the attack.
U.S. troops fanned out across the street to investigate what happened and question witnesses -- arriving hours after the gunmen had fled. The FBI was also investigating.
Early Friday, 40 miles north of Baghdad, police found the corpse of a man they believed to be a Westerner. The body was pulled from the Tigris River near the central Iraqi village of Yethrib, said Capt. Hakim al-Azawi, the head of security at Tikrit's Teaching Hospital. The man, described as tall and well built with blonde hair, had been shot in the back of the head. His hands were cuffed behind his back.
It appeared unlikely that the corpse was that of one of the three Westerners kidnapped Thursday because it was found so far away from the capital. At least five other Westerners are currently being held hostage in Iraq, including an Iraq-American man, two female Italian aid workers and two French reporters, both of whom have dark hair.
Insurgents have turned to kidnappings and spectacular bombings as the weapon of choice to pressure the United States and its allies to pull out of Iraq and embarrass the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Even in the heavily guarded Green Zone -- where the U.S. Embassy is located -- foreigners were warned in the last 10 days to be on guard against possible kidnapping attempts, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped, some in a bid to collect lucrative ransoms. Many have been executed, creating a seige-like mentality among the dwindling international community.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday that he feared the continued insecurity -- a surge in violence has killed more than 200 people nationwide since last weekend -- in Iraq would block elections slated for January.
Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, on a visit to The Hague, Netherlands, insisted that security was Iraq's priority and that it was "a little bit too premature to decide" whether elections would be held as planned.
Many Iraqis blame the United States for the lack of security since Saddam Hussein was forced from power, and for what they view as unfulfilled promises to rebuild their country's infrastructure, provide jobs and improve the economy.
By trying to scare away foreign workers, the kidnappers could be trying to fan such resentment, and further stall reconstruction projects by driving away those who coordinate and run programs. Other kidnapping victims have been blue-collar workers, driving trucks, rebuilding electrical plants and guarding building sites.
Many members of the besieged international community have hired armed guards and built blast walls around their compounds to ward against the daily mortars and car bombs. But some companies -- whose work is critical to Iraq's reconstruction -- are pulling out after concluding the risks are too great.
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the violence -- including kidnappings -- has hurt plans to revive the country's economy.
"There is no question that a mix of attacks, kidnappings, bombings, etc, has had a major effect of blocking foreign investment, leading firms to drop out of aid projects, restricting activity to 'safe' or 'safer' areas, and disrupting any smooth flow of activity while forcing massive expenditures of security," he said.