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Surge in kidnappings paralyzes embassies in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A new wave of kidnappings has sent shockwaves through the diplomatic and business communities in Baghdad, virtually shutting down most embassies and thwarting Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's efforts to drum up international support for his fledgling government.

Insurgents on Monday kidnapped two Jordanian drivers, the latest in a string of kidnappings, the most brazen of which was the daylight seizure of a heavily guarded Egyptian diplomat on Friday who was released unharmed Monday.

The latest hostage-takers, an Islamic militant group calling itself the Mujahedeen Corps, repeated now-familiar conditions for the release of the Jordanians: Their employer must cease work in Iraq or the men are dead within 72 hours, according to a video shown on Arabic-language satellite television. Similar demands were made for many of the 13 hostages grabbed by guerrillas in the past week.

The kidnapping epidemic underscores the inability of Iraqi and U.S. security forces to rein in an increasingly sophisticated insurgency that's turned to hostage-taking as a high-profile way of spreading their militant views and derailing political and reconstruction progress in Iraq.

Allawi has beseeched nations not to bow to kidnappers' demands and was furious with the Philippines for its decision last week to withdraw its tiny peacekeeping force from Iraq to spare the life of a Filipino captive.

Citizens from at least 20 nations have fallen prey to kidnappers in recent months. Nearly 70 people have been seized and at least four were beheaded.

The current hostages include two Pakistani drivers for a Kuwaiti-based firm who were abducted Friday, and three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian who worked as truck drivers and were kidnapped together Wednesday. On Monday, their captors extended a deadline to give the employer of the drivers time to meet their demands.

The abduction Friday of a heavily guarded senior Egyptian diplomat, however, moved the hostage crisis to a new level. Mohammed Helmi Qutb was snatched as he left a mosque in Baghdad; his captors said he was targeted because Egypt agreed to send security experts to aid the new Iraqi government.

He was released late Monday, apparently after the captors realized Egypt wasn't sending troops to Iraq, according to wire reports. Shortly before he was released, the Arabic-language satellite news channel Al Jazeera read a statement from the militants saying they had decided to release Qutb because he was a religious man and had good morals.

But foreign envoys were clearly shaken by the kidnapping. Even though their stately embassies are protected by massive concrete walls in upscale neighborhoods, foreign diplomats were hesitant even to respond to reporters' questions. More armed guards and armored vehicles were visible Monday. There was no sign of consular staff.

The Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and United Arab Emirates embassies were shuttered. A Vietnamese embassy spokesman grimaced when asked about the hostage crisis and quickly showed journalists the door. A Pakistani envoy was first willing to address the hostage situation, but declined five minutes later after consulting with senior embassy officials. An Iraqi worker at the Hungarian mission said the staff must first "study" media requests.

At the German embassy, no Germans were available for comment. An Iraqi guard, who was relaying media requests by radio to the embassy staff behind locked doors, was more than happy to offer his observations.

"They are now terrified," said the guard, who identified himself only as Raed. "They receive no guests, not even journalists. They've started to suspect everybody. Their movements are restricted to a minimum."

Allawi government officials denounced the Philippines' decision and urged other governments to not bow to the kidnappers' demands.

"This phenomenon is contrary to the values of Iraqi society and the principles of Islam," interim Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told the al Arabiya satellite channel Monday. "We will strongly confront these criminal networks and act to release these innocent people."

But violence continued to escalate throughout the country.

An Iraqi woman, her child and an Iraqi guard were killed in a suicide car bombing outside a U.S. base near the northern city of Mosul, according to the U.S. military. Three American soldiers and two Iraqi security guards were wounded. The car was packed with mortar shells, but they didn't detonate, preventing more devastation, the military said.

Gunmen assassinated a senior Interior Ministry official and two of his bodyguards as he left his home in Baghdad. Musab al Awadi was in charge of tribal affairs at the ministry.

Insurgents also opened fire on five female laundry workers employed by the American company Bechtel in the southern port city of Basra. Two women were killed and two others wounded, according to news reports.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Saleem Khalaf contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.