- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

BAGHDAD — Militants loyal to terror chief Abu Musab Zarqawi yesterday said they have kidnapped three Turkish workers and threatened to behead them in 72 hours, heightening tensions as President Bush visited Turkey for a NATO summit on security in Iraq.

In new violence, an explosion believed to be from a car bomb ripped through downtown Hillah, a largely Shi’ite Muslim city south of Baghdad, killing at least 19 and wounding around 60, a senior Iraqi police official said. [Other, later reports said two car bombs exploded and placed the number killed as high as 40 and the injured at 22.]

The bloodshed and the abductions — the latest claimed by Zarqawi’s radical movement, which beheaded two previous hostages, an American and a South Korean — cast a shadow over the NATO summit opening tomorrow in Istanbul, where Mr. Bush seeks the alliance’s help in stabilizing Iraq.

The terrorists demanded the Turks hold demonstrations protesting the visit by Mr. Bush and that Turkish companies stop working in Iraq.

The Arab television station Al Jazeera aired a video, issued by the kidnappers, that showed the three Turks facing the camera on their knees in front of two black-clothed gunmen and a black banner emblazoned “Tawhid and Jihad,” the name of Zarqawi’s organization. The men held up Turkish passports.

Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned that if security does not improve, it may become necessary to delay national elections set for January — a key landmark in the path to democracy that the United States has tried to enshrine before handing power to the Iraqis on Wednesday.

The Jan. 31 deadline for elections laid out in Iraq’s interim constitution is “not absolute yet,” Mr. Allawi told CBS News. “But we hope, and all of us will work toward that objective.

“However, security will be [the] main feature of whether we will be able to do it in January, February or March,” he said.

In central Baghdad, insurgents killed a U.S. soldier in an attack on a patrol, the military said.

Gunmen launched new attacks in Baqouba, northeast of the capital, sparking battles that killed six insurgents and three civilians. The city was the scene of fierce fighting in an offensive launched Thursday by Zarqawi.

In a written statement, Zarqawi’s group demanded Turkish companies stop doing business with American forces in Iraq and called for “large demonstrations” in Turkey against the visit of “Bush the criminal.”

If Turkey refused the demands, it said, the hostages “will receive the just punishment of being beheaded.”

Al Jazeera received the tape yesterday, an employee said. The statement did not say when or where the three were abducted. The deadline appears to be Tuesday, but the message did not specify the time.

The two-day NATO summit in Turkey ends Tuesday.

The three men disappeared two days ago, said a Turkish consular official in Baghdad who asked to be identified only by his surname, Gungor. He said he had no further information.

Mr. Bush is extremely unpopular in Turkey. Hours ahead of his arrival in Ankara, police battled scores of protesters yesterday, eventually firing tear gas to disperse them.

News of the latest abduction came as the body of Kim Sun-il, a South Korean worker decapitated by Zarqawi’s followers last week, was brought back to his hometown, Busan.

His slaying prompted nightly vigils in the Korean capital, Seoul, urging the government to call off plans to send 3,000 troops to Iraq in August.

Last month, Zarqawi’s group claimed responsibility for the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg.

Fighters loyal to Zarqawi launched a wave of coordinated attacks Thursday in six cities in Iraq, battling with U.S. troops who regained control only after some 100 people, including three Americans, were killed.

The U.S.-led coalition is mounting a campaign to convince Iraqis to help hunt down Zarqawi with the lure of a $10 million reward, Reuters news agency reported. Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said posters and announcements would publicize the existing price on Zarqawi’s head.

The explosion in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, came last evening outside the former Saddam Hussein mosque in a shopping area, where residents traditionally while away hours in the cool of the evening, said police Brig. Gen. Qais Hamza Aboud, commander for surrounding Babylon province.

Gen. Aboud said the blast was caused by a booby-trapped car. He said it was a clear attack on civilians — men, women and children — because there were no police or coalition soldiers in the area. He said nine other cars were set ablaze and that many of the injured were severely burned.

Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded in the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil in northern Iraq, killing one and injuring 18, including an official from the pro-American Kurdistan Democratic Party.

In Baqouba, gunmen attacked offices of two political parties and other buildings.

Insurgents hit the offices of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — one of the biggest Shi’ite parties — with shoulder-fired grenade-launchers, member Maitham Ibrahim said. Three party members died and two were injured, hospital officials said.

Gunmen overran the offices of Mr. Allawi’s political party, the Iraq National Accord, setting off an explosion that sent smoke and flames leaping from the building’s third-story windows, witnesses said.

U.S. Maj. Neal O’Brien, spokesman of the 1st Infantry Division, said four guerrillas — one wearing an explosives-packed vest — attacked Baqouba’s blue-domed government building. Guards fired back, killing the four, he said. Two other insurgents died in an attack on a police station, Maj. O’Brien said.

In the capital, gunmen attacked a police station in the New Baghdad area, but officers fought back in a rare show of force. The attackers fled, and police arrested three Iraqis, an Interior Ministry official said.

Meanwhile, repair crews patched up the larger of two southern crude-oil pipelines damaged by saboteurs and resumed pumping to offshore terminals, an official with the South Oil Company said.

Hours after pumping resumed, attackers blasted another small crude-oil pipeline that feeds into domestic storage tanks, near the town of Latifiyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad.

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