American, five others kidnapped in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Militants kidnapped an American, a Nepalese and four Iraqi guards in a bloody assault on their office in the capital Monday, and gunmen assassinated Baghdad’s deputy governor in a drive-by shooting, new violence that came as voter registration began for vital January elections.
West of the capital, U.S. troops clashed with Sunni insurgents, and American artillery pounded suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah, witnesses said.
U.S. forces are gearing up for a major offensive against Fallujah, the strongest bastion of Sunni insurgents. The order to launch what would likely be a bloody assault must come from Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who warned Sunday that his patience with negotiations was thinning.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to curb the insurgency in time for national elections by the end of January.
A handful of Iraqis showed up for the first day of voter registration in central Baghdad on Monday. They refused to allow TV cameras to film them for fear of future retaliation.
To help protect the voting, fresh American soldiers arrived in the capital Monday – reinforcements that push the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 142,000, the highest level since the summer of 2003.
The latest in Iraq’s wave of kidnappings came when gunmen stormed the offices of a Saudi company in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, sparking a battle with guards during the evening iftar meal when Muslims break their daylong fast in the holy month of Ramadan, police said.
One attacker and one guard were killed in the fight, before the gunmen made off with their captives, police said. Police Lt. Col. Maan Khalaf identified the captives as an American, a Nepalese and the four Iraqis. U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan confirmed that one of the victims was American.
“We heard gunfire. I went outside to see what’s going on when a man pointed a machine gun at me and said: ‘Get in or else I’ll shoot at you,”‘ said Haidar Karar, who lives in the neighborhood.
From his house he saw “at least 20 attackers, some masked and some not.” He said some were wearing traditional Arab robes and all were carrying automatic weapons.
The office is about 500 yards from a residence from which residents kidnapped two Americans and a Briton in September. All three were later beheaded. An al-Qaida-linked group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the slayings.
Twelve Americans have been kidnapped or are missing in Iraq, and at least three of them have been killed, including an American slain by al-Zarqawi’s followers in April. The group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of a Japanese hostage whose decapitated body was found on Saturday, wrapped in an American flag and dumped on a Baghdad street.
Also Monday, gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Baghdad province’s deputy governor, Hatim Kamil, to work Monday morning, killing Kamil, said Baghdad Governor Ali al-Haidari. Two of Kamil’s bodyguards were wounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.
A known militant group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack in southeastern Baghdad.
“This is the fate of whoever is aiding or supporting the crusaders against the Muslims and mujahedeen,” the group said on its Web site. It was impossible to verify the claim’s authenticity.