Iraq rebels target foreigners, aides

Turks, driver found dead

reports indicate 2 French journalists could be freed

September 03, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi police found the bodies of two Turkish nationals and an unidentified man yesterday in a rural area north of Baghdad, but there were promising reports about a pair of French hostages.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi driver employed by the Associated Press was fatally shot in an ambush near his home in Baghdad, the wire service reported.

The deaths underscored the perils facing foreigners and Iraqis working for overseas companies here. In recent months, scores of people employed by U.S. government-hired contractors and foreign companies have been kidnapped or ambushed.

Before yesterday, 142 contract workers in Iraq had been killed, according to a Web site that tallies kidnappings and casualties based on news accounts. Insurgents seeking the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Iraq have tried to frighten contract workers into leaving and to punish Iraqis who work for foreign military forces and private companies.

In what would be the worst such case, 12 Nepalese workers are believed to have been killed this week after a militant group released a videotape that appeared to show one of the men being beheaded and the others shot at close range.

In other developments, French officials and Muslim leaders continued to work for the release of the two French journalists taken hostage two weeks ago.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told reporters in Amman, Jordan, that the journalists - Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International - were "alive and getting good treatment."

Barnier made several stops in the Middle East as part of his government's efforts to free the men and met with French Muslim clerics who traveled to Iraq to work on the release. The journalists disappeared Aug. 19 in an area south of Baghdad where roadside attacks are common.

French news media said the abductors had handed the hostages over to a faction that has said it favors their release. But a spokesman for the French Embassy in Baghdad said he could not confirm the reports.

The kidnappers, members of a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, had demanded that France drop a new law banning Muslim headscarves in public schools. The law went into effect yesterday as French students returned to classes.

In Iraq, police found the three bodies near Samarra, about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. The Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television network said it received a videotape from a militant group that purportedly showed the killings of three Turkish hostages.

It was unclear whether the hostages in the video were the men whose bodies were found near Samarra. Television reports showed the bodies lying together, their faces bloodied.

Police said two of the men were identified as being from Turkey, but the third victim's identity was unknown.

The video was distributed by Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad, a group linked to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is wanted in car bombings, kidnappings and other attacks. U.S. authorities have offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

In the case of Associated Press driver Ismail Taher Mohsin, the news service said attackers fired shots into his car in a neighborhood near central Baghdad that has seen repeated attacks on U.S. convoys.

In other developments, hospital officials in Fallujah said the death toll rose to 17 from a U.S. airstrike Wednesday on buildings the military said were being used by Zarqawi associates. Fifteen others were injured.

Also yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged that the Bush administration had miscalculated the strength of the insurgency, but said the United States would "not become faint of heart" in enforcing its Iraq policy.

"What we have to do is to defeat this insurgency," Powell said in an interview Wednesday with Panama's TVN Channel 2. A text was released yesterday by the State Department. "Let's remember who is causing this trouble. It's not the United States. It's not the coalition forces that are there."

He conceded that "it is clear we did not expect an insurgency that would be this strong."

The Defense Department announced this week that the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 was 976 and that the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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