Six Egyptians kidnapped in Iraq |

Six Egyptians kidnapped in Iraq

Associated Press Writer

A man displays a portrait of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, left, as mourners join a procession for the burial of Majid Hameed, at Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday Sept. 24, 2004. Hameed was killed in an airstrike early Friday morning. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Gunmen abducted six Egyptians working for Iraq’s mobile phone company, seizing two in a bold raid on the firm’s Baghdad office and the others outside the capital, officials said Friday, the latest in a string of kidnappings that have underscored the country’s fragile security.

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.

Hours later, a rocket hit the busy Baghdad thoroughfare Palestine Street. Blood stains could be seen on the street afterward, footage from Associated Press Television news showed. Police Capt. Thaer Mtashar confirmed there were casualties, but he could not say how many.

U.S. Marines fired artillery rounds at militants in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the military said. The rounds were fired after the Marines observed a number of insurgents getting out of a vehicle with a mounted machine gun, said 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a Marine spokesman. There was no word on casualties.

U.S. warplanes have repeatedly targeted the network of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in recent weeks with attacks in and around Fallujah.

The kidnappings of the Egyptians came amid the hostage drama surrounding Briton Kenneth Bigley, who was shown in a video tape Wednesday begging for authorities to meet his kidnappers’ demands and save his life.

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Al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad has already beheaded two Americans who were kidnapped along with Bigley from their Baghdad home and are threatening to kill the 62-year-old Briton next unless Iraqi women are freed from prison.

The British Embassy in Baghdad distributed some 50,000 leaflets in Baghdad with a plea from Bigley’s family for residents to help find him and a phone number to cal with information. “A family man called Ken Bigley is being held somewhere in your community,” the leaflet said. “Ken’s mother, brothers, wife and child love him dearly. We are appealing for your help.”

Two of the Egyptians were kidnapped when gunmen stormed into the office of the Iraquna mobile phone company in Baghdad’s upscale Harthiya neighborhood Thursday night, said Iraqi Interior Ministry official Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman.

The kidnappers hustled the two communications engineers in a black BMW and drove them away, he said. Another ministry official said the gunmen tied up guards at the office.

Four more Egyptians working for Iraquna were kidnapped while working outside of Baghdad, said Farouq Mabrouk, an Egyptian Embassy official, who also confirmed the abductions of the two in the capital. He gave no further details on when or how the four were abducted.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnappings. In Cairo, a senior official of MobiNil, the parent company of Iraquna Mobile Net, said he believed the two Egyptians were not kidnapped for political reasons. He declined to comment further and insisted on anonymity.

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq – some by anti-U.S. insurgents and some by criminals seeking ransoms – and at least 26 of them have been killed by their captors.

Two Italian aid workers were also kidnapped from their Baghdad office last week, and two groups issued statements Wednesday and Thursday claiming to have killed the two women because their demands – the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq or the freeing of Iraqi women detainees – were not met. The Italian government, however, has cast doubt on the claims.

Several Egyptians have been abducted in the past, including a diplomat, Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, seized in July by militants angry at Egyptian plans to send security experts to Iraq. Qutb was freed after three days of intense diplomatic efforts. In August, al-Zarqawi’s group claimed to have beheaded an Egyptian hostage they called a spy, but the death was never confirmed.

The repeated hostage-takings have highlighted 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 Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Thursday that parts of Iraq might have to be excluded from the elections because of continuing violence.

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, echoed that demand.

“We reject any attempt to delay the elections under any pretext,” said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in a speech to a joint session of the U.S. 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.

The most violent regions of Iraq are in the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad. If voting is not held there, it could anger the Sunni minority – which already feels alienated after losing the dominance it held for centuries – and prompt some Sunnis to reject any government that emerges from the vote.