Kidnappers of Egypt’s top diplomat in Iraq threatened to kill him because Egypt has allied with “Jews and Christians,” according to a statement posted Wednesday on a Web site linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The group's religious court decided to hand over Ihab al-Sherif to its fighters “to carry out the punishment of apostasy against him,” the statement said. Under Islam, apostasy, or changing religion, is punishable by death. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
The statement was ominous because al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been responsible for beheading several foreign hostages, including American Nicholas Berg. Al-Zarqawi’s group also has claimed responsibility for numerous car-bombings in Iraq — many against Iraqi civilians.
Since al-Sherif, 51, was taken captive Saturday night, two more diplomats from Muslim countries have been ambushed in suspected kidnap attempts as part of what Iraqi officials say is an effort to sow a climate of fear and discourage Arab and Islamic countries from strengthening their ties to Iraq’s new government.
In Cairo, a senior Foreign Ministry official said the government was "in continuous contact" with the Iraqi government "and all other forces of the Iraqi society" in an effort to win al-Sherif's release.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, spoke to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari by telephone, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity and without elaboration.
Proof that al-Qaida took the envoy
Earlier Wednesday, the same Web site posted pictures of the Egyptian envoy’s identification cards, saying it was proof that al-Qaida in Iraq had taken the envoy.
The pictures showed the front and back of five ID cards in al-Sherif's name. His Egyptian driver's license and a Foreign Ministry card showed his photograph.
Without mentioning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by name, the statement denounced "that idol of Egypt," saying he promotes U.S. interests in the Middle East and his "torture against Muslims is the harshest."
The statement linked al-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.
The statement said Mubarak's "most recent work to support disbelief" was a decision "to accept the Shiite government of apostasy in Iraq" by sending an ambassador "upon the suggestion of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice."
Alleged al-Zarqawi audiotape
In an audiotape on the same Web site, a speaker said to be al-Zarqawi called Iraq's security forces as great an enemy as the Americans. The comments appeared aimed at discouraging insurgents from entering talks with the Iraqi government.
“Some say that the resistance is divided into two groups — an honorable resistance that fights the nonbeliever-occupier and a dishonorable 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.”
Meanwhile, a senior aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said during a visit to Bahrain's diplomatic mission Wednesday that the recent spate of attacks against Arab envoys was aimed at forcing embassies to withdraw from Iraq.
Sheikh Hassan al-Ithari said the meeting was part of al-Sadr's desire to hear Arab sentiment about the attacks. Al-Sadr aides plan to visit between six and seven diplomatic missions in the coming days.
The speaker also announced the formation of a new terror command to fight Iraq’s biggest Shiite militia. Al-Zarqawi’s attacks against Iraqi Shiites, who comprise an estimated 60 percent of the country’s 26 million people, have raised fears that this nation could descend into civil war.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials have said U.S. representatives have participated in meetings with Sunni insurgents in an effort to help the Iraqi government draw militants into the political process.
It was impossible to determine whether the speaker was al-Zarqawi, although the voice sounded like ones on tapes U.S. officials have verified as coming from al-Zarqawi.
The speaker on the tape tacitly acknowledged pressure to abandon the struggle against the Americans and their Iraqi allies, saying he was “saddened and burdened” by people “advising me not to persist in fighting in Iraq.”
He also said the Americans began speaking of negotiations to end the conflict after al-Qaida had “humiliated” U.S. forces on the battlefield.
Rumsfeld has insisted the talks with insurgents did not involve negotiations with al-Zarqawi and other suspected terrorists.
In other developments Wednesday:
- Gunmen killed four policemen and wounded at least nine more in separate attacks in Baghdad.
- A U.S. senator who criticized President Bush’s Iraq policy at recent congressional hearings was in Baghdad for meetings with politicians, officials said. Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s senior Democrat, was accompanied by several members of his staff, U.S. Embassy spokesman Adam Hobson said.
- A member of the biggest Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, was killed in an ambush in Baghdad, police said.
- An Iraqi civilian who had been “cooperative” with the Americans was shot dead on his way to work north of Baghdad near Tarmiya, police added.
- Officials said a U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday and two were wounded by a roadside bomb northeast of Baghdad, while an Iraqi soldier died and three were injured when a suicide car bomber struck their checkpoint late Tuesday 20 miles south of Kirkuk.
Iraqi security forces have been increasingly targeted by insurgents to shake public confidence in the new government elected in January. That has led to public criticism from some Iraqis who support attacks against Americans and other foreigners but not their fellow citizens.
In the attacks against diplomats, Bahraini envoy Hassan Malallah al-Ansari was slightly wounded as he drove to work Tuesday in the Mansour district. Pakistan’s Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan escaped injury later Tuesday when gunmen in two cars fired on his convoy in a kidnap attack in the same district, security officials said.
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.