Sunday, August 08, 2004

Iran envoy is seized by Iraqi rebels

Iran envoy is seized by Iraqi rebels: "Iran envoy is seized by Iraqi rebels
Compiled by Our Staff From Dispatches AP, Reuters
Monday, August 09, 2004

BAGHDAD Militants in Iraq kidnapped an Iranian diplomat Sunday as Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, made an unannounced visit to the war-torn city of Najaf, calling on militants to lay down their weapons after days of fierce clashes with U.S. forces.

The kidnapped Iranian diplomat was identified as Faridoun Jihani, the consul to the Iraqi city of Karbala, according to video shown on the Al-Arabiya television station.

The kidnappers, who called themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq, accused Jihani of having provoked sectarian war in a country deeply divided between the resurgent Shiite Muslim majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslim minority, and they warned Iran that it should not interfere in Iraq's affairs, according to Al-Arabiya.

They did not appear to threaten Jihani and made no demands, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Iraq has issued an arrest warrant for Ahmad Chalabi, a former member of the Governing Council, on counterfeiting charges, Iraq's chief investigating judge said Sunday. (Page 5)

The developments came as Iraqi security forces battled guerrillas loyal to the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and as Allawi met with Najaf's governor, Adnan al-Zurufi. At least two Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and 13 people were wounded during fighting in the holy Shiite city, witnesses and hospital officials said.

As part of its efforts to put down the 15-month-old insurgency, the government announced Sunday that it was reinstating the death penalty, which had been suspended during the U.S. occupation.

"The tough task in front of us in this country is maintaining security and stability, combating terror and organized crime," Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said.

"I assure you that none of us in the government are comfortable with reinstating capital punishment."

The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad said Sunday that Jihani, the diplomat, had dropped from sight Wednesday as he was traveling from Baghdad to take up his new post of consul in Karbala.

The video from the Islamic Army in Iraq, which was reported to have killed two Pakistani hostages last month, showed a bearded man wearing a white shirt in front of a black banner bearing the group's name.

"The group also warned Iran against flagrant interference in the affairs of Iraq," the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya channel said Sunday. It did not mention any threats against the hostage.

Iraqi and U.S. officials are uneasy about attempts by Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, to gain influence among neighboring Iraq's restive Shiites.

Many Sunni Iraqis are deeply worried about the rising power of the long-suppressed Shiite majority.

Allawi's one-hour visit to Najaf took place under heavy security, with 100 U.S. soldiers, foreign security contractors, Iraqi National Guard troops and Iraqi police officers protecting him and a delegation that included Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and the national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

A government deadline for militants to withdraw from Najaf expired Saturday, but gunmen - masked, carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers, and manning checkpoints in the old city - showed no signs Sunday of pulling out.

Sadr's organization, called the Mahdi Army, also controls the Imam Ali Shrine compound, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam, where the remains of Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of Islam's prophet, Muhammad, are buried.

"We think that those armed should leave the holy sites as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law," Allawi said. Fierce fighting between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army raged in Najaf on Thursday and Friday and sporadic fighting continued Saturday and Sunday.

Allawi denied that the government wanted to arrest Sadr and expressed optimism that the violence would end.

"The situation will be defused soon," he said, before returning to Baghdad.

Allawi's delegation did not meet with Sadr or any of his aides, who remained defiant. "We are trying to defend our country," said an aide to Sadr in Baghdad. "We are not going to leave Najaf or any other city. The occupiers are the ones who should leave Najaf and the rest of Iraq."

Six explosions boomed across central Baghdad on Sunday, sending plumes of smoke into the air. One blast hit a truck traveling on a city-center street, setting it ablaze and causing casualties, officials said. The blast, apparently from a rocket or mortar, collapsed part of a wall of a nearby house, and there were bloodstains on the street. Shrapnel also smashed the windows of a nearby car, the seat of which was covered in blood.

The police on the scene said there were casualties but could not say how many.

In the southern city of Amarah, Sadr's militants clashed with the police in a gun battle that killed four Iraqis and wounded 23, the Health Ministry said.

Farther south in Qurnah, 380 kilometers, or 235 miles, southeast of Baghdad, gunmen ambushed a Danish patrol, a Danish military spokesman, Jan Brink, said. The Danes, who have 496 soldiers in Iraq, returned fire and withdrew, suffering no casualties, he said.

Recent clashes have threatened to revive a Shiite uprising that broke out in April and was calmed only in early June by a series of truces. The military says hundreds of militants have been killed in the latest violence, though the militiamen put the number far lower.

Allawi signed an amnesty law for minor criminals on Saturday, intended to persuade some militants to put down their weapons. On Sunday, the government announced the new death penalty, but insisted it would not be used to punish political opponents.

"This is not an open door to execute anyone and everyone, or people whom the government dislikes," Minister of State Adnan al-Janabi said. "This is not Saddam's law."

It was unclear how the new death penalty law would effect Saddam, who is awaiting trial on war crimes charges, or whether the death penalty would apply to people who had committed crimes during its suspension. (Reuters, AP)"


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