Top Egyptian diplomat in Iraq missing, apparent victim of abduction by gunmen

Disappearance may deter Arab embassies' creation

July 04, 2005|By Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Egypt's top diplomat in Iraq, who was to have become the first ambassador here from an Arab nation, was missing yesterday after apparently being abducted near his home, authorities said.

Ihab Sherif, head of Egypt's diplomatic mission in Baghdad, disappeared after going out late Saturday. His vehicle was found next to a newsstand near his home. Witnesses reportedly said he was taken by gunmen who beat him and called him an "American spy."

Kidnappings and beheadings have become commonplace in Iraq, but Sherif is the first person of his rank to be seized.

In Cairo, Egypt, the government said it had sought help from Iraqi authorities to determine whether Sherif had been abducted. Authorities in Baghdad said the ambassador's office was not aware that he was missing until yesterday morning, when a driver went to pick him up at his home.

"The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hopes for a speedy clarification of the situation and the safeguarding of the security of the Egyptian diplomat who is charged with strengthening relations between the two brotherly peoples of Egypt and Iraq," the ministry said in a statement.

Egypt recently announced that it would upgrade its mission in Baghdad to an embassy, becoming the first Arab nation to be represented here by an ambassador since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Many had seen the naming of an ambassador as an expression of confidence among Arabs in the new government, but Sherif's disappearance could deter other neighboring nations from following Egypt's lead.

The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is struggling to deal with an insurgency led by Sunni Arabs and foreign Islamic extremists that has led to more than 1,700 deaths since the government was formed in late April. Insurgent attacks continued yesterday, as a car bomb killed three Iraqi police officers at a checkpoint north of Baghdad.

But U.S. forces also have been responsible for the deaths of numerous civilians. In an unusually blunt criticism of the U.S. military yesterday, the Iraqi government's chief spokesman called on U.S. troops to reduce the killing of unarmed civilians on Iraqi streets and during house-to-house searches.

Laith Kubba said he deplored the recent shooting deaths of two Iraqi journalists and a cousin of Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations. He said al-Jaafari would raise the matter at the "highest levels" of the U.S. government. "I can tell you, Iraqis are not happy about it," Kubba said.

U.S. forces maintain that they cannot take unnecessary risks and that they fire at suspicious vehicles to prevent car-bomb attacks on military convoys and checkpoints.

In a June 24 case that Kubba referred to, Yasser Salihee, 30, a special correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, was apparently shot by a U.S. sniper when he approached a checkpoint in his car. Salihee, a physician, was driving alone on his day off.

On Tuesday, U.S. forces shot Wael al-Bakri, also 30, a television news producer for the independent satellite channel Sharqiya, when he stopped near a military convoy.

"America claims a lot of humanitarian rights and positive notions, but we see the opposite in how they treat people," said his father, Ahmed Wael al-Bakri. "True, they have freed us from a dictatorial regime, but that does not give them the right to kill us, does it?"

Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, alleged Friday that U.S. Marines killed his cousin, Mohammed Sumaidaie, 21, in "cold blood" during a search of the family's house in western Anbar province June 25. The university student was cooperating with the search and led soldiers to a bedroom to show them an unloaded rifle moments before he was killed, the ambassador said.

The United States is investigating all three killings.

In a previously unannounced visit, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales arrived in Baghdad for the day yesterday to mark the July Fourth holiday weekend.

"I suspect there's some of you that are here that sometimes feel lonely and you sometimes wonder whether you are alone," Gonzales told soldiers at the U.S. Embassy. "And I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, that the American people are very much with you."

As President Bush's legal counsel during the administration's first term, Gonzales wrote a memo declaring that the president could waive anti-torture laws that protect prisoners of war. Some critics say the memo contributed to the notorious abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a contention Gonzales rejects.

In the case of the missing Egyptian ambassador, much remains a mystery. Sherif, 51, had been in Baghdad for less than a month when he disappeared.

Traveling in the city can be so dangerous that most high-profile people travel in a convoy of at least two cars, with the second vehicle carrying armed guards. For reasons that remain unexplained, the ambassador apparently went out Saturday without a chase vehicle. According to some accounts, he was driving alone, also rare for a foreign dignitary. He was in a white Jeep with diplomatic license plates.

It is not unusual for kidnappers to stalk a potential victim for days or weeks, waiting for an opportunity to grab him.

Sherif had further reason to take precautions: Egypt's third-ranking diplomat in Iraq, Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, was kidnapped a year ago and held for a month before being released.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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