- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — Two Italian women working for an aid agency in Iraq were kidnapped yesterday, the agency said.

Gunmen in olive green uniforms broke into the group’s Baghdad offices and took the women along with two Iraqis, one of them a woman, neighbors said.

The attack was only the second known kidnapping of foreign women since the wave of abductions began earlier this year. The first involved a Japanese aid worker captured in Fallujah in April along with two other Japanese, who were all released a week later.

The Washington Times reported two months ago that U.S. forces believed Iraqi militants were seeking to kidnap an American woman in order to shock the American public.

The kidnappings came as renewed fighting with the Mahdi’s Army militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr helped push the number of Americans killed in Iraq to 1,001, according to an Associated Press tally. The official Pentagon count remained at 994.

Two of the seven Americans killed yesterday died in Sadr City, where battles involving warplanes and tanks killed an estimated 35 Iraqis and wounded more than 200. The outbreak threatened to shred a cease-fire negotiated with Sheik al-Sadr 12 days ago in the city of Najaf.

The two Italian women kidnapped yesterday were identified as Simona Torretta, the head of the Baghdad office of the relief group “A Bridge To Baghdad,” and Simona Pari, both 29. The two Iraqis were identified as Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam.

A spokesman at the Rome headquarters of the agency, Lello Rienzi, told reporters that about 20 armed men stormed their offices, saying they were from an unidentified “Islamic group.”

Witnesses in Baghdad said about 15 men drove up to the one-story villa used by the group and broke in. The men claimed to work for the office of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the witnesses said.

A government spokesman denied Mr. Allawi’s office was involved, and said that workers had been kidnapped.

In Rome, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held an emergency meeting with the defense, interior and foreign ministers, as well as with intelligence officials.

Two armed men pushed their way into the Baghdad office, put guns to the heads of the aid group’s guards and grabbed the four workers, said Jean-Dominique Bunel of the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq.

An Iraqi woman resisted, but they dragged her by her head scarf, threw her into a car and sped away, witnesses said.

“We have contacted religious authorities, and we have informed their families,” Mr. Bunel said. “We are working for their release.”

Mr. Bunel said he knew of no immediate plans by other private aid organizations to evacuate the country because of the kidnapping. A car bombing last year at the offices of the International Red Cross Committee prompted many aid groups to flee the country, although some returned.

However, the recent wave of kidnappings of foreigners has alarmed the international community here and has prompted many organizations to review their security options.

U.S. forces in Iraq have also been on alert for any attempt to seize an American servicewoman since learning earlier this summer of an edict within terrorist organizations to attempt such a capture.

“We have heard through intelligence channels that several extremist organizations are attempting to capture coalition servicemen and women,” The Washington Times quoted a senior military officer as saying.

Insurgents have kidnapped more than 100 foreigners since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Numerous Iraqis have also been abducted by criminal gangs demanding ransoms.

Five other Italians have been kidnapped in Iraq, two of whom have been killed.

According to its Web site, “A Bridge To Baghdad,” or “Un Ponte Per Baghdad” in Italian, is a volunteer association created in 1991 to bring aid to the Iraqi people and to oppose the embargo that had been imposed on the country. It has also operated in the Balkans.

The organization was supplying water and medicine to Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad.

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