Iraq Insurgents Snatch 4 Egyptians

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Four Egyptians working for a mobile phone company were abducted Sunday in western Baghdad by gunmen who stopped their car as they drove to work, and Islamic militants threatened to kill an Italian journalist by Monday unless Italy agrees to withdraw its troops.

In other violence a week after Iraq's election, two Iraqi National Guard soldiers were killed and three more were injured Sunday in an attack on a patrol in central Iraq, the Polish military said.

Two rockets exploded on the edge of the Baghdad International Airport compound, raising a large plume of smoke above the city skyline. A third rocket slammed into an Iraqi National Guard building in a western suburb but there was no report of casualties.

Attackers gunned down an Iraqi contractor who apparently worked with the U.S. military, and police in Karbala reported that a suicide car bomber struck a U.S. convoy south of the city Sunday morning, destroying an American vehicle.

The U.S. military had no information on the blast, and there was no word on casualties.

In other developments:

  • Shiite leaders are debating how religious the Iraq constitution should be, the New York Times report. A alliance of Shiite groups with ties to Iran are expected to have the biggest voice in drafting the document. The most conservative think Koranic law should be the foundation of all legislation.
  • Vice President Dick Cheney brushed off concern that Islam will be the guiding principle of Iraq's new government. He said the country has the right to shape its own democracy without becoming "an Iraqi version of America." "They will do it in accordance with their culture and their history and their beliefs and whatever role they decide they want to have for religion in their society. And that's as it should be," he said in a broadcast interview.
  • Hundreds of Iraqis shouted slogans and waved Iraqi flags Sunday outside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone to protest alleged irregularities they say prevented tens of thousands of people in Mosul from voting in last weekend's landmark elections. The demonstrators were mainly Iraqi Christians, Turkomen and Yazidis, members of a small religion in the north, who say polling centers never opened in their neighborhoods in the turbulent northern city and surrounding Ninevah province.
  • Iraqi security forces are holding a former Saddam Hussein-era army general suspected of financing insurgent bombings and plotting attacks on election targets, Iraqi authorities said Sunday. Khamis Masin Farhan Ugaydi, 51, was captured Dec. 20 in the town of Beiji, north of Baghdad, officials said in a statement. The statement gave no explanation for the delay in announcing the capture.

    The four kidnapped Egyptians were seized early Sunday near the Mansour district of western Baghdad, the official said on condition of anonymity. They worked for Iraqna, a subsidiary of the Egyptian firm Orascom Telecommunications, which operates the mobile phone network in Baghdad and central Iraq.

    Six other Egyptians working for Iraqna were kidnapped in two separate incidents in September. All were ultimately freed although Orascom said at the time that it was committed to continuing its work in Iraq.

    The Italian journalist was kidnapped Friday by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Giuliana Sgrena, 56, is a veteran reporter for the left-wing daily Il Manifesto.

    A statement Saturday on an Internet bulletin board used by extremist groups said she would be subjected to the "rule of God," a phrase that usually means punishment by death in the lexicon of Islamic militant groups.

    The new Web message was signed by the Jihad Organization. It was unclear whether the group was the same as one that posted an Internet statement hours after the abduction on Friday.

    In that message, a group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organization claimed to have kidnapped the woman and gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops. But it made no threats to kill her or say what would happen if its demands were not met.

    Neither statement included a picture of the woman or other evidence to support the claims.

    A top Foreign Ministry official in Rome said Italy was investigating whether the journalist was seized by insurgents or by ordinary criminals hoping for a ransom.

    Italian officials have also publicized her pacifist convictions in hopes it might help win her release.

    Italy has about 3,000 troops in Iraq, one of the largest coalition contingents after those of the United States and Britain.

    The two Iraqi guardsmen were killed in an ambush in Babil province, a mixed Shiite-Sunni area which had been a flashpoint of rebel activity. Three other Iraqi guardsmen were injured, the Polish military command in the area said.

    Also Sunday, an Iraqi civilian was wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded but missed an Iraqi police patrol in the southern port city of Basra, police said.

    Elsewhere in the city, gunmen fired rifle shots at a gasoline tanker truck, and the vehicle exploded into a huge ball of fire. No one was hurt, said police Capt. Mushtaq Talib.

    The tanker was heading to an illegal port used by oil smugglers in the city, Talib said.

    In another attack, gunmen fired on a group of Iraqi policemen working to dismantle a roadside bomb on a main street in central Baghdad, injuring two officers, a police official said.