- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

BAGHDAD — Masked gunmen shot a blindfolded Turkish hostage in the head three times on a gruesome Internet video meant to warn Muslim workers to stay out of Iraq. Soon after the video was discovered yesterday, Turkish truckers announced that they would stop hauling goods for U.S. forces in an attempt to save two other Turkish captives.

The truckers’ decision was another victory for militants who have taken more than 70 foreigners hostage as leverage to drive coalition forces and anyone supporting them out of the country. Between 200 and 300 trucks cross Turkey’s southern border into Iraq every day to bring fuel, food and other supplies to U.S. forces.

“As of today, those trucks won’t be crossing into Iraq,” said Cahit Soysal, head of the International Transporters Association.

In recent weeks, militants — buoyed by the Philippines’ decision to pull its troops out of Iraq to save a Philippine truck driver — have intensified their kidnapping efforts. A few companies have withdrawn from Iraq, and several countries —] including the Philippines, Bulgaria, Kenya and Egypt — have warned their citizens not to work here.

Residents of mainly Muslim countries have not been spared. The same al Qaeda-linked group that killed the Turk said yesterday it would free a Somali captive because his Kuwaiti employer had agreed to cease business in Iraq.

The killings of foreign hostages have been denounced by Iraqi religious figures, including radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. Marines yesterday fought with gunmen protecting Sheik al-Sadr’s house in clashes that killed one woman and wounded three other persons in the southern city of Najaf, hospital officials said.

Sheik al-Sadr, whose followers fought a two-month rebellion against U.S. forces beginning in April, was in his house at the time, witnesses said.

The U.S. military did not confirm the battle outside Sheik al-Sadr’s house, saying only that Marines were attacked with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars while patrolling the city. The Marines returned fire, killing two insurgents, the military said.

Witnesses said the fighting began when U.S. military vehicles entered the Zahra area near Sheik al-Sadr’s house, which is protected by his militia, the Mahdi’s Army. But the Marines said they were patrolling areas of Najaf authorized under a cease-fire agreement.

Also yesterday, Iraqi government and religious leaders lashed out at a coordinated series of car bombings on Iraqi churches during Sunday evening services that killed at least 11 persons.

“We condemn and reproach these hideous crimes,” said Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who added that the attacks “targeted Iraq’s unity, stability and independence.”

Followers of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is linked to al Qaeda, are prime suspects both in the church attacks and in the slaying of the Turkish truck driver.

Militants from Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group said Saturday they would kill the drivers within 48 hours if their employers did not leave Iraq.

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