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Egypt’s envoy to Iraq kidnapped in Baghdad

Reuters | July 3, 2005

Egypt’s envoy to Iraq has been kidnapped in Baghdad, possibly in response to reports he was to become the first full-ranking Arab ambassador to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, diplomats and police sources said on Sunday.

Ihab el-Sherif, the head of mission, was cornered by gunmen in cars while on a short trip to buy a newspaper near his home on Saturday evening and had not been heard from since, the diplomat told Reuters on condition that he was not identified.

”The motives are believed to be political,” he said, noting that Iraq’s foreign minister had said just last week that Egypt would become the first Arab state to appoint a full-ranking ambassador to Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, which said it was “checking reports” Sherif had “disappeared”, has yet to confirm it plans to upgrade his post. The Baghdad mission had no comment.

Iraqi police sources said they had found the envoy’s white four-wheel drive car undamaged not far from his home.

An upgrade to full ambassadorial status for Sherif on the part of Egypt, the most populous and traditionally most powerful Arab state, could enhance the standing of a new Iraqi government many Arabs view with suspicion because of its backing from the United States and sectarian ties to Shi’ite Iran.

”He was buying a newspaper on Saturday evening when two BMWs full of gunmen blocked his way and kidnapped him,” the diplomat told Reuters, saying there had been no word from the kidnappers.

It appeared the envoy had been on his own, he said.

KIDNAP WAVE

More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some have been killed. Many have been released after the payment of ransoms to criminal gangs.

Others have been taken by insurgents from Iraq’s Sunni Arab community -- a minority in Iraq but the majority in most other Arab states -- who have made political demands.

A senior Egyptian diplomat was kidnapped in the Iraqi capital a year ago and released unharmed after several days. Those kidnappers released a statement condemning an Egyptian offer of assistance to the U.S.-installed Iraqi government. Full details of the incident, however, were never made public.

The kidnapping of the envoy was an uncomfortable reminder of insecurity in Iraq as the new, Shi’ite-led government strives to encourage foreign investment following a tour abroad last month by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other ministers.

A suicide bomber killed up to 20 people, mostly would-be police recruits, in Baghdad on Saturday morning, close to the main government compound in the capital.

In late evening, two suicide bombers struck at police and Iraqi soldiers in the mainly Shi’ite town of Hilla, to the south, killing nine people and wounding 33, police said.

One police source said the pair were wearing Iraqi army uniform. One bomber wearing an explosive vest entered a restaurant opposite police headquarters, while the second joined fleeing survivors and detonated among them three minutes later.

In another account, Polish troops who control the area said the second bomber blew himself up among police sent to secure the scene. They said five policemen and a soldier were killed.

Near the northern oil city of Kirkuk, a car bomb blasted a police patrol at the town of Riyadh, killing two policemen.

TORTURE ALLEGATIONS

Iraq’s police are in the front line of insurgent assaults and are routinely accused by Iraqis of resorting in turn to unlawful arrests and torture -- accusations that were publicly accepted on Sunday by the government.

The U.S. and British governments, the Iraqi administration’s main backers, have also voiced concern.

”These things happen, we know that,” Jaafari’s spokesman Laith Kubba told a news briefing after a report in Britain’s Observer newspaper detailed allegations of death squads and secret torture centres run by Interior Ministry forces.

”It does not happen because the government approves it or adopts it as policy,” he added, saying ministers were worried.

Keen to put the abuses of the previous regime of Saddam Hussein behind them, Kubba said the new authorities were training police and troops to respect human rights.

”But theory is one thing and practice is another,” he said, adding that decades of violence had brutalised Iraqi society.

Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Ali al-Khafaji denied any policy to torture or kill detainees: “It is all false reports,” he said. “We do not want to repeat history. We the Iraqi people have been tortured and abused and do not want to go back to it.”

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