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Insurgents kidnap Iraqi governor, demand end to military offensive

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Gunmen kidnapped the newly elected governor of Anbar province Tuesday, demanding that U.S. forces stop their offensive against foreign insurgents in western Iraq in return for his release.

But U.S. officials said they have no plans to end their offensive in the area around the town of Qaim near the Syrian border.

An Iraqi official said the offensive was triggered by local tribal leaders' complaints that about 300 foreign fighters had overtaken the town and were attacking residents who didn't offer them refuge.

"They said, `We are citizens of Qaim and we are now being attacked by non-Iraqi people coming from Syria. They are shelling us with mortars,'" Bruska Noori Shaways, the deputy Iraqi defense minister, said in an interview with Knight Ridder. "Until this time, they had never asked Iraqi or American forces to help them. It's a good sign."

A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, said the United States continued to conduct house-to-house searches in the area and had captured 10 suspected insurgents Tuesday. More than 100 suspected insurgents have been arrested since the offensive began over the weekend, and scores more have been killed.

"We believe the area has a porous border that allows foreign elements to come in," Boylan said, including fighters loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Gov. Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was with his son when gunmen kidnapped him in Qaim, his hometown, officials in Anbar province said. It's unclear if al-Mahalawi's son was also taken hostage.

The governor's brother, Hammad Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi, said the kidnappers called the governor's family and said he would be held until the U.S. offensive ended.

Al-Mahalawi had yet to take office. He was the mayor of Qaim during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Al-Mahalawi is also a member of a tribe that's been willing to fight the insurgency, according to Kareem al-Hamzaui, who works in the provincial government's media office.

Qaim, which is about 200 miles west of Baghdad, has been plagued by violence, both from outsiders and from rivalries among its tribes.

So far, three Marines have been killed in the fighting, but Boylan said no one was hurt Tuesday. U.S. soldiers built a bridge over the Euphrates River and were chasing fleeing insurgents, he said.

Meanwhile, members of the National Assembly announced the formation of a committee to oversee the writing of a permanent constitution as violence continued in the capital.

Two car bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing at least eight people and wounding 20, Interior Ministry officials said. An insurgent group reported that it had kidnapped a Japanese civilian, and there was no word on the fate of a kidnapped Australian held by another group.

The assembly decided that 55 members—or 20 percent of the assembly—would form the committee to lead the creation of the new constitution.

The group represents Shiites, Kurds and members of smaller parties in the parliament. To give the minority Sunni sect a voice in the process, the assembly also agreed to create a subcommittee of people who don't hold assembly seats but would be able to voice their opinions, committee member Humam al-Hamodi said.

"We cannot simply turn our backs to them," Alaa Talabani, a Kurd and national assembly member, said of the Sunnis.

The assembly didn't name a committee chairman but said it will do so within three days so the group can start its work.

Meanwhile, in an Internet posting, the Army of Ansar al-Sunni claimed it ambushed a civilian convoy in western Iraq on Tuesday and kidnapped Akihiko Saito, 44. The group said it killed everyone else in the convoy—12 Iraqis and four foreigners. The group demanded that Japan withdraw its troops in return for Saito's release.

A similar demand had been made by the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq, which said that the release of Douglas Wood, 63, depended on Australia withdrawing its troops. The group's Tuesday deadline passed with no word on Wood's fate.

Together, Australia and Japan have about 2,000 troops in Iraq. Both governments have said they won't negotiate with terrorists.


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press, Salihee is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam and another special correspondent who cannot be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.