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Kidnapped Bishop Released In Iraq

A Catholic archbishop kidnapped in Iraq has been freed, the Vatican said Tuesday. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials announced measures designed to protect voters during the Jan. 30 vote, which insurgents are seeking to ruin with a campaign of violence.

Pope John Paul II, who had prayed for the bishop's release, was informed immediately of the release, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "He changed his prayer to one of thanks," he said.

A ransom of $200,000 initially had been demanded but the bishop was released without the payment of any money, the Vatican said.

The prelate kidnapped Monday was Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, of the Syrian Catholic Church, one of the branches of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican had branded the kidnapping a "despicable terrorist act" and demanded his immediate release.

In other developments:

  • A third American troop died in fighting in Iraq's troubled Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the military said Tuesday. Two other soldiers assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were also killed in action there on Monday. The military gave no further details and it was unclear if the three were killed in a suicide car bombing in the western city of Ramadi that U.S. officials said resulted in U.S. casualties. Further details were withheld for security reasons.
  • Insurgents released a video Tuesday showing eight Chinese workers held hostage by gunmen who claim the men are employed by a construction company working with U.S. troops, in the latest abduction of foreigners in Iraq.
  • In Baghdad, masked gunmen Monday shot dead Shaker Jabbar Sahl, 48, a Shiite who was running on the ticket of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, headed by Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a cousin of Iraq's last king.
  • Just south of Baghdad, in the town of Youssifiyah, Iraqi troops distributed leaflets Tuesday informing residents that they will have to vote in Baghdad because they cannot secure the area.
  • In Mosul, An American patrol was hit by a roadside bomb, Iraqi police said. There was no word on any casualties.
  • U.S. forces killed five insurgents in northern Iraq on Monday, the military said. Three of them were shot dead after troops spotted them hefting around rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar rounds in the city of Mosul. Two others were killed while staging an attack.

    A priest in Iraq said on condition of anonymity that Casmoussa was walking in front of the Al-Bishara church in Mosul's eastern neighborhood of Muhandeseen when gunmen forced him into a car and drove away.

    Mosul, in Iraq's north, has been a hotspot for the violent insurgency in recent months.

    The reason for the kidnapping was unclear but Christians — tens of thousands of whom live in and around Mosul — have been subjected to attacks in the past.

    Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. The major Christian groups in Iraq include Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians. There are small numbers of Roman Catholics.

    Iraqi officials announced Tuesday that they will seal the country's borders, extend a nighttime curfew and restrict movement inside the country to protect voters during the Jan. 30 vote.

    Attacks continued Tuesday, with a suicide car bomber detonating explosives outside the offices of a leading Shiite political party, killing himself and three other people as part of an apparent rebel campaign to frighten Shiites from this month's election. Also, masked gunmen killed a Shiite Muslim candidate in the Iraqi capital.

    Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency, are increasingly honing in on Shiites in their campaign to ruin the Jan. 30 election that is widely expected to propel their religious rivals to a position of dominance.

    Tuesday morning's car bombing gouged a crater in the pavement, left several vehicles in flames and spread shredded debris and flesh on the street outside the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a main contender in the election.

    The party, known here as SCIRI, has close ties to Iran, and is strongly opposed by Sunni Muslim militants.

    The assailant told guards at a checkpoint leading to the party's office that he was part of SCIRI's security staff, but detonated his bomb-laden car at the guard post when he was not allowed to enter.

    The U.S. military reported the bomber and three others were dead and four people were injured.

    A spokesman for the Shiite party said it would not be cowed.

    "SCIRI will not be frightened by such an act," Ridha Jawad said. "SCIRI will continue the march toward building Iraq, establishing justice and holding the elections."

    Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission announced that the country's international borders would be closed from Jan. 29 until Jan. 31 except for Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia.

    Iraqis will also be barred from traveling between provinces and a nighttime curfew will be imposed during the same period, according to a statement from the commission's Farid Ayar.

    Such measures had been expected because of the grave security threat. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are hoping to encourage a substantial turnout but fear that if most Sunnis stay away from the polls, the legitimacy of the new government will be in doubt.

    Iraq's interior minister warned Tuesday that if the country's Sunni Arab minority bows to rebel threats and stays away from the polls on Jan. 30 the nation could descend into civil war.

    Falah Hassan al-Naqib, who is himself a Sunni, told reporters he expects Sunni insurgents to escalate attacks in the run-up to the election, especially in the Baghdad area. Voters are to choose a new 275-member National Assembly.

    "If any group does not participate in the elections, it will constitute treason," al-Naqib said. He added that "boycotting the elections will not produce a National Assembly that represents the Iraqi people."

    If that happens, he added, the Iraqi people "will enter into a civil war that will divide the country."

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