Iraqi parliament opens session

Violence, kidnappings continue

hostage-takers free 7 foreign truckers

September 02, 2004|By T. Christian Miller | T. Christian Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim parliament opened its first session yesterday amid mortar fire, kidnapping dramas and a court appearance by one of it members, former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.

Nevertheless, members of the newly appointed National Council said they were confident they could guide the country to democratic elections in January.

They paid little mind to the mortar and rocket attacks thudding nearby, which injured one Iraqi civilian at a checkpoint a few hundred yards from the gathering in Baghdad's American-held Green Zone.

"Today we witness a vital step on the way of the democratic process, and of building up our new Iraq," said Rosh Shawais, vice president of the council, which plays a mostly advisory role to the government of Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "It is a historical step."

As the council met, Iraqi kidnappers freed seven truck drivers from India, Kenya and Egypt, and worry grew about the fate of two French journalists held by a violent fundamentalist group. In addition, an Islamist group announced that it had kidnapped a Jordanian in Iraq and cautioned anyone against cooperating with U.S.-led forces, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported.

The truck drivers, who had been held for six weeks, were freed after their employer, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co., acceded to kidnappers' demands to cease operations in Iraq, Iraqi negotiators said.

The company's chairman said yesterday that the company had paid a ransom but planned to continue operations in Iraq.

"We paid half a million dollars in order to release the hostages, and in the past we have paid other sums," Chairman Saeed Dashti said.

Insurgents have used kidnapping as a tactic in their attempts to disrupt the U.S.-funded reconstruction effort.

On Tuesday, a group calling itself the Ansar al Sunna Army was shown on video carrying out what it said were the executions of 12 Nepalese who had come to work in Iraq as contractors for a Jordanian company. The announcement led to civil unrest in Katmandu, the Nepalese capital, that continued yesterday, resulting in the death of a man in a clash with police.

The freed drivers, who appeared smiling and relaxed as they were taken to the airport for a flight to Kuwait, had been held by a group calling itself the Holders of the Black Banners.

Meanwhile, Muslim and Western leaders in an unusual display of unity called for the release of the two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International.

The two men were being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq, which threatened to kill them unless France repeals a ban on Islamic head scarves and other religious apparel in its public schools. The ban is to take effect today, the start of the school year. The same group claimed responsibility for killing an Italian journalist last week.

Scattered violence continued around Iraq yesterday. In Mosul, mortars rained down on the headquarters of the provincial government. Doctors reported one person killed and 12 injured. Gunmen opened fire on Chalabi's convoy yesterday morning as it returned from Najaf, the southern city where he met with Iraq's highest Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Two guards were injured, but Chalabi was unharmed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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