- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq claimed responsibility yesterday for the kidnapping Saturday of Egypt’s top diplomat in the country, as insurgents mounted new attacks against Arab and Muslim envoys in Baghdad.

Iraqi government officials and Arab news outlets in the region reported the incidents as an apparent campaign by insurgents to send a message to any country attempting to boost diplomatic ties with Iraq’s new government.

Gunmen yesterday shot at the car of Pakistan’s ambassador, who survived the ambush, and Bahrain’s top envoy suffered a gunshot wound to the hand in what his government called an attempt by insurgents to kidnap him.

Also yesterday, in an audiotape posted on the Internet and reported by the Associated Press, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, said the Iraqi army is as great an enemy as the Americans. He also announced the formation of a new terror command to fight Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite militia.

The tape challenged critics who maintain that fighting U.S. troops is legitimate, but who oppose attacks on Iraqi forces.

“Some say that the resistance is divided into two groups — an honorable resistance that fights the nonbeliever-occupier and a dishonorable resistance that fights Iraqis,” the speaker said on the tape. “We announce that the Iraqi army is an army of apostates and mercenaries that has allied itself with the crusaders and came to destroy Islam and fight Muslims. We will fight it.”

In a separate attack on diplomats Sunday, two cars belonging to the Russian Embassy in Baghdad were riddled with bullets while traveling along the road to Baghdad airport. No embassy personnel were wounded, Russian officials said.

The attacks come on the heels of the abduction Saturday of Egyptian ambassador-designate Ihab al-Sherif, who was kidnapped while walking alone on a Baghdad street.

Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kuba told reporters the kidnapping was part of an effort to “scare the other diplomatic missions so that they won’t expand their presence in Iraq.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Abd al-Sattar Jawad, the chief editor of the al-Siyada (Sovereignty) newspaper in Iraq, said the incidents were “intended to prove that the Iraqi government is too weak to defend the embassies and diplomats.”

Al Arabiya television, meanwhile, broadcast a copy yesterday of what it said was a statement by the al Qaeda wing in Iraq led by Zarqawi, claiming responsibility for kidnapping Mr. al-Sherif.

A message posted on a Web site used by radical Islamist groups said: “We, the al Qaeda in Iraq organization, announce that the Egyptian ambassador has been kidnapped by our mujahedeen, and he is under their control.”

The message said more information would be released later and was signed by “Abu Maysara al-Iraqi” — the name commonly used by Zarqawi’s group. Its contents could not be independently confirmed.

Last month, Egypt announced plans to upgrade its mission in Baghdad to full embassy status headed by an ambassador, which would have made Mr. al-Sherif the first Arab ambassador to Iraq’s new government.

Witnesses said kidnappers pistol-whipped the 51-year-old envoy before stuffing him into the trunk of a car in western Baghdad on Saturday night. The abductors reportedly accused him of spying for Americans.

Separate attacks on Pakistani and Bahraini diplomats also occurred in western Baghdad. The attack on Pakistani Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan occurred in the Mansour district, the same neighborhood where Bahraini diplomat Hassan Malallah al-Ansari was ambushed.

The official news service of Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf state that supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is home to strategic U.S. military assets, said gunmen made an “attempt to kidnap” Mr. al-Ansari while the diplomat was en route from his home to the Bahraini mission in Baghdad.

Pakistan has also been a U.S. ally in the global war on terror, but was opposed to the Iraq invasion. After the attack on Mr. Khan yesterday, Pakistan said it would temporarily remove the diplomat to Jordan.

The attack occurred when gunmen riding in two cars opened fire on Mr. Khan’s convoy as he was on his way home from the Pakistani mission in Baghdad.

Mr. Khan, who was not wounded in the attack, told the Associated Press that his bodyguards “fired back at them so we were able to escape without any harm.”

He also said he believed one of the attackers’ cars was hit by gunfire, but was not sure if anyone was injured.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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