2 Algerian diplomats seized in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — Gunmen on Thursday seized two Algerian diplomats — including the country’s top envoy — in the latest attacks aimed at undermining support among Muslim and Arab nations for the US-backed Iraqi government.

Meanwhile, efforts to finish the new constitution by an August 15 deadline suffered a setback when Sunni Arab members announced they would not return to committee drafting the charter until the government accepts demands that one Shiite official said are impossible to meet.

The new constitution is considered an essential step in putting together a broad-based government to enable the United States and its international partners to begin scaling back their military presence in Iraq next year.

Elsewhere, at least 17 people were killed Thursday in insurgent attacks, including two suicide car bombings against Iraqi security forces. The US command said an American sailor died of wounds suffered last week in western Iraq.

The chief of Algeria’s mission in Iraq, Ali Belaroussi, and another Algerian diplomat, Azzedine Ben Kadi, were dragged from their car along with their driver in early afternoon in west Baghdad’s Mansour district, police and Algerian officials said.

Belaroussi, a career diplomat, has been in Iraq for about two years, and previously had served as financial director at Algeria’s embassy in Paris from 1997 to 2002, Algerian officials said.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari pledged his government would increase security for diplomats but warned them to avoid going to dangerous areas.

No group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which occurred less than three weeks after Egyptian diplomat Ihab Sherif was seized at gunpoint in another western Baghdad neighbourhood. Three days later, gunmen opened fire on senior envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain in what police said were kidnap attempts.

Al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq, the country’s most feared terror group, claimed responsibility in web statements for kidnapping Sherif and later claimed to have killed him although the terror organisation offered no photographic evidence that he was dead.

Internet statements attributed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by terror mastermind Abu Mussab Zarqawi, said the group wanted to seize “as many ambassadors as we can” to punish governments that support Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

A total of 49 countries or entities have some form of diplomatic representation in Iraq, including 18 Arab or non-Arab Muslim countries, according to Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and country web sites.

The American sailor, whose name was not released, was assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division and was fatally injured July 15 by a bomb in Hit, 135 kilometres west of Baghdad, the US military said in a statement.

At least 1,773 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The announcement by Sunni Arab members of the constitutional committee came at the end of a meeting of Sunni leaders to review their participation in the process of drafting a new constitution.

A Sunni Arab role is considered essential in luring members of the influential minority away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency. However, two Sunnis involved in drafting the constitution were gunned down Tuesday, prompting others to suspend their participation in the commission pending better security.

Kamal Hamdoun, one of the 12 remaining Sunnis appointed to the constitutional commission last month, said Thursday that the minority would continue its boycott until an international investigation was launched into the killings and until Sunnis received a greater voice in drafting the charter.

A Shiite member of the commission, Hussein Athab, complained that the Sunni statement would make it more difficult to finish the constitution on time. Athab said the Sunni demands “are impossible to be met and no one can accept them.” The commission chairman, Humam Hammoudi, complained that the Sunni statement “is no way to have a dialogue” and expressed hope the Sunnis would reconsider before the next drafting session this weekend.

Even if the Shiite and Kurdish committee members decided to try to meet the August 15 deadline without Sunni participation, questions would be raised over the legitimacy of a charter and whether it would win Sunni approval in an October referendum.

Under rules set down during the US occupation, the constitution would fail to win ratification if two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject. Sunni Arabs are believed to form a majority in at least four provinces.

In another potential stumbling block, Kurdish members of the commission have submitted a proposal which would dramatically increase the territory of the Kurdish self-ruled region, which they want codified in the new constitution.

The proposal would extend the boundaries to include the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and extend the Kurdish region as far south as the towns of Badra and Jassan, about 150 kilometres southeast of Baghdad.

“We need an official map that marks the boundaries of Kurdistan in the federal Iraq. This redrawn map is based on historical and geographical facts and we are determined to stick to this map,” said Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior official with the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish political parties.

“In any negotiations, we might be ready to seek compromises on some political privileges or ministerial posts, but the boundary of Kurdistan is a red line, and Kurdish leaders are committed to this,” he said.

Those changes, however, would be unacceptable to many Sunni Arabs, who oppose Kurdish calls for federalism and who would not tolerate expanding Kurdistan into areas where large numbers of Sunni Arabs live.

In another development, His Majesty King Abdullah yesterday telephoned Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and reiterated Jordan’s support for Iraq, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

King Abdullah also condemned the recent attacks in Iraq, saying that such “criminal acts aim to undermine Iraq’s security and stability”, according to Petra.

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