Insurgents' lethal message

July 12, 2005

THE TERRORIST attacks in London last week overshadowed a killing in Iraq that was carried out by like-minded people intent on a similar purpose. Ihab al-Sherif, an Egyptian diplomat named to be Cairo's ambassador to Iraq, was murdered - beheaded, his captors proudly claimed - after being kidnapped days earlier. He is but one of hundreds killed in the ruthless insurgency seething through parts of Iraq.

The insurgents' systematic attacks primarily focus on civilians and supporters of the U.S.-led occupation; witness Sunday's carnage at an Iraqi military recruiting station where 21 people were killed and at least 34 others wounded. But Mr. al-Sherif's abduction and murder fits the insurgents' political intent. Their aim to destabilize the new Iraqi government should be thwarted at every turn and countered with increased diplomatic support.

Mr. al-Sherif's diplomatic status didn't shield him; he was chosen because of it. By singling out the representative of the Arab world's most populous country (and one of Sunni Muslims), the insurgents in Iraq wanted to isolate the new Iraqi government from potential allies in the Arab world and beyond. Mr. al-Sherif's murder served three insurgent objectives: Demoralize Iraq's elected leaders, oppose the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (a key U.S. ally in the region) and frustrate a broader U.S. initiative to bolster the transitional Iraqi government. Insurgents warned that other diplomats in the country would face a similar end - and they took shots at Pakistani and Bahraini diplomats to prove it.

In last Thursday's announcement of Mr. al-Sherif's death, the al-Qaida insurgents took the opportunity to berate Mr. Mubarak's government for its harsh treatment of their Islamic militant comrades, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt. Its vengeful tone served as a reminder of the menacing threat Islamic militants pose to other governments in the region. And lest anyone forget, the Jordanian-born leader of the Iraqi insurgency, Ayman al-Zawahiri, served time in Egyptian prisons as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since Mr. al-Sherif's murder, Egypt has temporarily withdrawn its diplomats. But they should return to Baghdad, joined by other Arab envoys, to assist the efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. That may require implementing new security arrangements or establishing a special diplomatic compound for safety reasons - Mr. al-Sherif was kidnapped while en route alone to buy a newspaper. Arab countries have as much a stake in Iraq's political and economic development as the United States, and showing their support with a diplomatic presence is a start.

The insurgents' lethal message in their campaign of violence shouldn't go unheeded - but the response should not be a diplomatic blackout.

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