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2 Americans among 3 civilians kidnapped in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Gunmen kidnapped two Americans and a Briton from their home in a wealthy neighborhood here before sunrise Thursday, the latest in a series of increasingly brazen abductions of foreigners from areas once thought safe.

The U.S. embassy identified the kidnapped Americans as Jack Hensley and Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, but gave no hometowns. The British embassy didn't confirm the identify of the third man.

Thursday evening, police reported they had pulled the unidentified body of a Westerner from the Tigris River.

It's unclear who kidnapped the three men, and why. Iraqi police said they worked for ASCS/GSCS, a construction and services company based in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. They were snatched by at least four gunmen from the al-Mansour neighborhood, where several embassies, foreign companies and prominent Iraqi politicians are based.

No shots were fired, and police said they found the MP-5 submachine gun of one of the Americans in the kitchen, fully loaded.

More than 100 foreigners have been abducted in a bid to undermine Iraq's interim government, drive foreigners from the country and raise money. Many of the hostages have been executed through beheadings and shootings.

Two French journalists, two Italian aid workers and an Iraqi-American businessman are among those still missing. Kidnappers released a Jordanian truck driver Thursday after his employer agreed to stop working in Iraq, according to Jordan's state-run Petra news agency.

Neighbors of the men kidnapped Thursday and police said the gunmen drove up in a Kia minibus at about 6 a.m. and rushed the house, where the Westerners were preparing to leave for work. Within five minutes, they'd subdued their victims, forced them into a gray Nissan Pathfinder parked inside the walled property and driven off.

"Leave at once and never look back," one gunman said in Iraqi Arabic to an elderly passer-by who was on his way to morning prayers, according to Adawiyah, 32, a next-door neighbor who heard the abduction through her bedroom window. She and another witness asked that their last names not be used, for fear of retaliation from the kidnappers.

Majid, 23, who lives across the street, said he heard scuffling and what sounded like feet being dragged across the pavement as he approached the darkened compound. He'd gone to restart the men's generator, which they allowed him and at least 10 other Iraqi families in the neighborhood to use for electricity when the central power failed, a daily occurrence in this city.

"I couldn't see anything, it was so dark," Majid said. "I thought it was a robbery, that they were thieves, and then I thought: `What should I do? I should run.'" He shouted at his mother, standing at the family's front door, to go back inside.

There was no company guard at the contractors' house overnight as was usually the case, he added.

"That happened from time to time, if he was ill or if the foreigners gave him the day off," Majid said.

According to the Iraqi police report, the victims two days before had fired one of the three guards who provided around-the-clock coverage for the compound. Police said it was too early to say whether the fired guard, listed as Athir Jabar Rasheed in the report, was involved in the abduction.

The building at the address listed for the company in the police report was vacant Thursday afternoon, with a "for lease" banner draped across the front. Neighbors said the firm had moved out earlier in the day.

The Americans' and Briton's two-story beige concrete and marble house also stood empty, its gated front door padlocked.

American soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division fanned out around the home's tree-lined street early Thursday afternoon to investigate the abductions.

Iraqi neighbors were terrified and saddened by the kidnapping of three foreigners, who police said had lived there 14 months.

The Westerners, who neighbors estimated to be in their 40s, kept mostly to themselves with the exception of the Briton, who occasionally chatted with Adawiyah and her husband in Arabic and English. She often baked Iraqi treats for the men, who they think are engineers, and passed the goodies over the concrete wall separating their properties.

Neighbors said the men would drive to work around dawn and return in the afternoon, staying inside the house. The men routinely switched the styles and colors of their two sport utility vehicles as a security precaution. The Nissan Pathfinder and a Mitsubishi Pajero were the latest versions, and they'd had them about a week, Majid said.

Adawiyah's husband, a physician, said that with kidnappings and violence on the rise, he'd urged the Briton to leave Iraq. "I'd ask, `Aren't you afraid?' And he'd say, `I travel all over and I've been to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is my job.'"

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040916 Iraq kidnap

Iraq

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