Iraq: New Abductions, New Attacks

A U.S. Army soldier watches from a rooftop over the Sadr City section of Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 23, 2004. Sporadic fighting continued in the district.
Kidnappers seized six Egyptians working for Iraq's mobile phone company in separate incidents, authorities said Friday.

The men were all working for Iraquna Mobile Net, said Farouq Mabrouk, an Egyptian Embassy official. Two were kidnapped in Baghdad, while the others were seized outside the capital, Mabrouk said.

Also Friday, mortars exploded near the Italian Embassy in Baghdad, slightly wounding three Iraqis, the Foreign Ministry in Rome said. The mortars were fired shortly after 6 a.m. when the embassy offices were closed, the Foreign Ministry said. No other details were released.

It was not clear if the kidnappings were politically motivated like that of the Briton, Kenneth Bigley, who was shown in a video tape Wednesday begging for the release all female prisoners in Iraq as his captors have demanded. The United States says only two high-profile women prisoners are in custody and there are no immediate plans to release them.

The repeated hostage takings underscored the extremely volatile security in Iraq, a situation that is only expected to get worse in the run-up to elections scheduled to take place by the end of January.

In other developments:

  • In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Thursday that parts of Iraq might have to be excluded from the elections because of continuing violence.
  • As of Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004, 1,039 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war. The British military has reported 65 deaths; Italy, 19; Poland, 13; Spain, 11; Bulgaria, six; Ukraine, eight; Slovakia, three; Thailand, two; the Netherlands, two; and Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Hungary and Latvia have reported one death each.
  • The Army National Guard will fall 5,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal this year, in part because fewer in the active-duty force are switching to part-time service, knowing how frequently Guard units are being dispatched to war zones, the Guard's top general said Thursday.
  • There is a hepatitis outbreak in Iraq, the International Herald Tribune reports. The collapse of water and sewage systems is blamed for the spread of the disease, which is dangerous for pregnant women.
  • A series of large explosions rocked this city west of Baghdad on Friday, witnesses said. The explosions hit the eastern side of Fallujah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold and a "no-go" area for U.S. troops. There were no immediate reports of causalities.

    With car bombs, shootings and kidnappings escalating and several cities effectively under insurgent control, there are concerns that Iraq will not be ready to hold a vote by the Jan. 31 deadline. But Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, are eager to hold elections since they expect to dominate whatever government emerges.

    Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is insisting elections promised for January must be held on time, an aide said.

    The leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite Muslim political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also said the vote must go ahead as planned.

    "We affirm on the necessity to hold elections on time and we reject any attempt to delay the elections under any pretext," said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim during a ceremony held in the Southern city of Najaf Thursday to mark the first anniversary of his brother's assassination. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was killed a car bomb explosion while leaving the Shiite holy shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

    Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, vowed not to let violence derail the election timetable. He said 14 or 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe."

    However, at least six provinces — Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Nineveh — have been the scene of significant attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi authorities in the past month. The only areas not plagued by bloodshed are the three northern provinces controlled by Kurds. The situation in many areas, however, is unknown since journalists' travel is restricted by security fears.

    Rumsfeld, at a Senate committee, was asked how elections could be held if restive cities remained in revolt when U.N.-supervised elections are to be held.

    "So be it," Rumsfeld said. He said "it could be" that violence will be worse by January. The result, he said, would be "an election that's not quite perfect." But he said that some balloting would be better than none at all.

    More than 130 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq — some for lucrative ransoms — and at least 27 have been killed.

    Two Italian women aid workers were also seized from their office on Sept. 7. Two statements surfaced on the Internet this week claiming they had been killed, but the Italian government says the claims are unreliable.

    In other violence Thursday, U.S. warplanes blasted insurgent positions in Sadr City, and American ground troops pushed into the sprawling Baghdad slum in a new operation aimed at disarming the militia of a renegade anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

    Iraqi doctors said one person was killed Thursday and 12 were wounded, many of them children.

    Militia fighters returned fire with machine guns and an American Bradley fighting vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and caught fire, according to a U.S. military report. It was not clear if there were casualties.

    The aim of the Sadr City operation, dubbed "Iron Fist 2," is to subdue al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia by seizing weapons caches and detaining or killing his lieutenants, said Maj. Bill Williams of the 1st Cavalry Division.