Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq claimed Thursday it had killed Egypt's top envoy who was abducted by gunmen last weekend and warned it would go after "as many ambassadors as we can" to punish countries that support Iraq's U.S.-backed leadership.
An Egyptian official in Cairo said Egypt would temporarily close its mission here and has recalled its staff.
The announcement from Iraq's most feared terror group appeared on an al Qaeda-linked Web site and featured a brief video showing the blindfolded diplomat, Ihab al-Sherif, wearing a polo shirt. The video did not show his death, but the statement promised more details later.
"We announce in the name of al Qaeda in Iraq that the verdict of God against the ambassador of the infidels, the ambassador of Egypt, has been carried out. Thank God," a written statement in posting said, adding "Iraq is no longer safe for the infidels."
The Iraqi foreign ministry offered condolences for the "assassination" and an Egyptian diplomat who spoke to Egyptian reporters in Cairo said the government was sure al-Sherif was dead "from our own means." He spoke on condition of anonymity and did not elaborate.
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News of the killing marked a dramatic escalation in a campaign to discourage Arab and Muslim governments from sending ambassadors and strengthening ties with Iraq, as Washington wants. Last month, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced that Egypt would be the first Arab country to upgrade its diplomatic representation by appointing a full-fledged ambassador.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba said the apparent killing coupled with the explosions Thursday against the subway and a double-decker bus in London, which killed at least 37 people and wounded hundreds, "confirms that terrorism in not only targeting Iraqis but everyone."
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak insisted his country will continue to support Iraq.
"This terrorist act will not deter Egypt from its firm position in support of Iraq and its people," the statement said. Al-Sherif "lost his life at the hands of terrorism that trades in Islam but knows no nation and no religion."
Al-Sherif, 51, was seized Saturday in Baghdad. Three days later, gunmen fired on senior envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain, two Muslim nations with close ties to the United States, in apparent kidnap attempts.
In its latest statement, al Qaeda said it did not announce al-Sherif's kidnapping until after the subsequent attacks "to be able to capture as many ambassadors as we can."
In Najaf, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called for a "war of annihilation" against al Qaeda and other groups that include foreign Islamic extremists.
"They have declared a war of annihilation against Iraqis, Shiites and Kurds as well as Sunni Arabs who don't agree with their acts," he said. "Let us launch a war of annihilation against foreign criminals who came from abroad to fight the Iraqi people."
Iraqi officials, meanwhile, sought to assure foreign governments that their diplomats would be safe. Officials said al-Sherif, a former deputy ambassador to Israel, was grabbed in a dangerous neighborhood while traveling without armed escorts.
"All Arab and Muslim states are invited to prove their seriousness in fighting terrorism by sending their ambassadors, which is a message in itself to show their keenness to in fighting terrorism," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Egypt's U.N. ambassador asked the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to urgently address the issue of protecting diplomats in Iraq. Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said the Security Council should address the issue "in a manner which would secure the lives of those diplomats, not only of Egypt but of other countries who have been subject to such brutal attacks in the past few days."
The United Nations itself lost an envoy in Iraq in August 2003, when a bomb ripped through the world body's headquarters in Baghdad. The U.N. withdrew from Iraq following the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others, citing security concerns, but has returned though in far smaller numbers.
According to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry Web site, there are 46 foreign missions in Iraq, including 14 from predominantly Arab or Muslim countries. The numbers include Egypt.
The United States has been urging Arab states to upgrade their missions as a sign that Iraq's government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds who are a minority in the Arab world, has won acceptance by its neighbors.
Saad Mohammed Ridha, the head of Iraq's diplomatic mission in Cairo, told The Associated Press that Egypt's foreign ministry told him late Thursday that the mission would close temporarily and the staff was being recalled.
"We are very sorry about this decision," Ridha said. "We are as sad as they are. It (al-Sherif's killing) was a horrible act."
Seeking to bolster public confidence, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said Thursday that nearly 1,700 suspected insurgents have been detained and 41 killed in skirmishes during the six-week long Operation Lightning in Baghdad. About 1,000 terror suspects remain in custody, including four Sudanese, three Palestinians, two Egyptians, two Jordanians and one Syrian, he said.
Such assurances and appeals for diplomatic solidarity were unlikely to assuage fears within the diplomatic community, already hunkered down behind blast walls, concertina wire and armed guards.