Saturday, December 25, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces captured two senior figures of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, the U.S. military said yesterday, and one of Turkey’s richest businessmen was reported kidnapped, appearing in a video with a weeping employee and saying they were being held hostage.

In Baghdad, police uncovered more bodies under the rubble after a suicide bomber blew up a gas tanker in an upscale Baghdad district, bringing the death toll in the Friday night attack to at least nine persons.

The U.S. Marines said they captured two men who led cells in Anbar province for Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq network. The province, a center for the insurgency, includes the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.

A Marine Corps statement identified the captured men as Saleh Arugayan Kahlil and Bassim Mohammed Hazeem. Their cells kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi national guardsmen, carried out car bombings and other attacks in the Ramadi area and “smuggled foreign terrorists into the country,” the Marines said.

“This group is responsible for intimidating, attacking and murdering innocent Iraqi civilians, Iraqi police and security forces, and business and political leaders throughout the Anbar province,” according to the statement.

Zarqawi’s group, once known as Tawhid and Jihad, recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s network. It has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks against U.S. troops and government forces.

The video of the two Turkish hostages was the first report of a kidnapping of foreigners in Iraq in weeks, and it appeared the abduction netted one of the highest-profile victims yet.

Kahraman Sadikoglu, president of the Istanbul-based Tuzla Shipyard, is famous in Turkey for having renovated and saved from ruin the “Savarona,” one of the world’s largest yachts, once used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Mr. Sadikoglu appeared in the video, broadcast on Turkish television, beside Ahmet Yurtdas, the captain of one of his ships. No kidnappers appeared in the footage, issued any statement claiming responsibility or made any demands. The video’s authenticity could not be confirmed.

“Today is December 23. We were captured four or five days ago,” Mr. Sadikoglu said. “We’re fine, and they will check us out, what we’re doing here, and will hopefully release us. God is great.”

Mr. Sadikoglu said he was working for the United Nations and the Iraqi government on a project clearing harbors of sunken ships.

“We don’t have any problems with the Iraqi government,” he said. “We’re creating jobs and food for the Iraqis. If that is a crime, too, then we will accept the punishment.”

The two men had not been heard from since they left the southern Iraqi city of Basra by land on Dec. 16, their families said.

Several Turkish newspapers said a ransom demand of $25 million had been made, but Foreign Ministry officials and family members of the hostages refused to confirm the reports.

More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq this year, and at least 34 of them — including seven Turks — have been killed by their captors. At least four other foreigners, three of them Americans, are known to remain captive.

Violence has persisted across Iraq despite the U.S. military’s offensives last month aimed at putting down insurgents in several hot spots — including their stronghold, Fallujah, which U.S. forces captured.

Friday night, a suicide bomber detonated a butane gas truck in the upscale Mansour district near the Libyan and Moroccan embassies, hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left the Iraqi capital after a one-day visit to speak to U.S. troops.

Rescuers yesterday uncovered seven more bodies under the rubble of one of three houses wrecked in the blast, bringing the toll to nine Iraqis. At least 14 persons were seriously wounded by the explosion.

The violence has escalated in the run-up to national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. Though majority Shi’ites have embraced the vote as a chance to assert their numerical strength, radical elements within the minority Sunni community are leading the campaign to prevent the vote.

In other violence yesterday, a car bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy was passing through the southern town of Ein al-Nus, killing three Iraqis and wounding two, police said.

Gunmen shot and killed Hasan Abdul-Ghani al-Rubaei, a professor at Baghdad University’s medical school as he drove his car along dangerous Haifa Street, where militants often launch attacks.

A roadside bomb also exploded yesterday near the car of the governor of eastern Diyala province, wounding four of his guards, officials said. Gov. Abdullah Rashid al-Jbouri was unharmed by the blast in the town of Khan Bani Saad, halfway between Baqouba and Baghdad, medical officials said.

More displaced residents of Fallujah returned to inspect their devastated homes yesterday, the third day that authorities have allowed some residents back into the city.

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