Iraq rebels threaten to kill Egypt ambassador

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kidnappers of Egypt’s top diplomat in Iraq threatened to kill him Wednesday because Egypt has allied with “Jews and Christians,” according to a statement on a website linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Pictures of the envoy’s ID cards were posted as proof he was held by Iraq’s most feared terror group.

The threat against Ihab Sherif, seized by gunmen Saturday in western Baghdad, marks a dramatic escalation in a campaign to isolate Iraq diplomatically in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Three days after Sherif was taken, gunmen fired on senior envoys from Bahrain and Pakistan in apparent kidnap attempts.

It appeared the intimidation campaign was already discouraging US calls for Arab countries to upgrade diplomatic ties to the new Iraqi government.

Pakistan’s Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan flew to Jordan a day after his convoy was fired on in west Baghdad.

Bahraini envoy Hassan Malallah Ansari, slightly wounded in a separate shooting Tuesday, was expected to depart within a few days and Bahraini officials said it was not known when he would return.

In the web statement, the kidnappers said Al Qaeda’s religious court had decided to hand over Sherif, 51, to its fighters “to carry out the punishment of apostasy against him.” Al Qaeda considers cooperating with Americans as apostasy, or the abandoning religion, which is punishable by death under Islam.

The statement was chilling because Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Mussab Zarqawi, has been responsible for beheading several foreign hostages, including American Nicholas Berg. Zarqawi’s group also has claimed responsibility for numerous car-bombings in Iraq — many against Iraqi civilians.

Some insurgent groups have threatened to kill hostages only to release them later, but Al Qaeda normally carries out its threats.

The pictures posted on the site showed the front and back of five ID cards in Sherif’s name. His Egyptian driver’s licence and a foreign ministry card showed his photograph.

The material appeared on the same site as an audiotape in which a speaker purported to be Zarqawi said Iraq’s security forces were as great an enemy as the Americans.

The statement linked Sherif’s kidnapping to Egypt’s announcement last month that it would be the first Arab government to upgrade its mission here to a full embassy headed by an ambassador. Egyptian officials say no ambassador has been designated although Sherif was posted here a few weeks before the announcement.

Without mentioning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by the name, the statement denounced “that idol of Egypt” for allegedly promoting US interests in the Middle East and for allegedly torturing Muslims.

“His most recent work to support disbelief was his initiative to accept the Shiite government of apostasy in Iraq by sending an ambassador to represent Egypt in Iraq,” the statement said. “This was upon the suggestion of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” In Cairo, a senior foreign ministry official said the Egyptian government was “in continuous contact” with the Iraqi government “and all other forces of the Iraqi society” in an effort to win Sherif’s release.

More than a dozen Arab nations have diplomatic missions in Baghdad, but none has a full ambassador — in part because of security fears and in part because governments are hesitant to take a step that could be seen as condoning the US military presence in Iraq.

On Wednesday, a prominent Sunni Arab member of parliament and critic of the US role here urged Al Qaeda to withdrew its threat to kill the Egyptian ambassador. Mishaan Jubouri said Sherif and other Arab diplomats can be useful in urging their governments to promote human rights here.

A senior aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr spoke against the attacks during a visit Wednesday to Bahrain’s diplomatic mission. Sadr’s forces fought US troops last year until he bowed to pressure from Shiite clerics to end armed resistance.

The campaign against diplomats could be aimed in part at raising the profile of Zarqawi’s group at a time when Iraqi and US officials are making overtures to other insurgents to join in the political process.

Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials have said US representatives have participated in meetings with Sunni insurgents in an effort to help the Iraqi government draw militants into the political process.

Iraqi officials have said they are willing to negotiate with groups that have not killed civilians but will not deal with Al Qaeda and foreign extremist fighters.

In the audiotape, the purported Zarqawi acknowledged he was under pressure to abandon the insurgency, saying he was “saddened and burdened” by people “advising me not to persist in fighting in Iraq.” “Some say that the resistance is divided into two groups — an honourable resistance that fights the nonbeliever-occupier and a dishonourable resistance that fights Iraqis,” the speaker said. “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 other developments Wednesday:

— Two car bombs exploded in Jbala, 70 kilometres south of Baghdad, killing 11 people and injuring 19, police said.

— Gunmen killed four policemen and wounded at least nine more in separate attacks in Baghdad.

— A member of the biggest Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, was killed in an ambush in Baghdad and an Iraqi civilian who had been “cooperative” with the Americans was shot dead north of Baghdad near Tarmiya, police said.

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