Iranian envoy abducted in Iraq

Tehran says kidnappers `acted under U.S. supervision'

February 07, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iran accused the United States yesterday of being behind the abduction of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, but U.S. officials refused even to confirm that a kidnapping had taken place as the two countries' campaign of finger-pointing was brought up another notch.

Iranian officials said Jalal Sharafi, a second secretary at the Iranian Embassy, had not been seen since gunmen dressed in Iraqi military uniforms intercepted his car Sunday as he left a branch of a state-owned Iranian bank.

"They acted under U.S. supervision," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Hosseini said in a statement released in Tehran. He described the incident as a "terrorist attack."

The Bush administration has accused Iran of fueling the sectarian warfare in Iraq by providing Shiite Muslim extremists with weapons and explosives being used against U.S. troops and Sunni Arab targets. U.S. officials have been holding five Iranians seized last month in a raid in the northern city of Irbil and accused of planning attacks on Americans.

The seizure Sunday was another example of U.S. heavyhandedness, an official at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad said. "They should release our colleague as soon as possible," he said angrily.

Neither U.S. government nor military officials in Baghdad would confirm that the incident occurred.

"We have no record of any event that looks remotely like the described abduction," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. Officials at the U.S. Embassy said they were "aware of the reports" and were looking into them.

Kidnappings are common in Baghdad, where anyone from high-ranking officials to merchants fall prey to gangs looking to get rich by ransoming hostages. But Iranian officials refused to consider that Sharafi's abduction was anything but another attempt by Washington to put the squeeze on Tehran. They cited the detention of the Iranians in Irbil as evidence.

"This is not the first time such a thing has happened," the Iranian Embassy official said of Sharafi's abduction. "Normally, the United States is responsible."

As Iraq's violence has escalated, so too has the tension between the United States and Iran, whose leaders deny bolstering Shiite militias at work in Iraq. The diplomatic snarling has put Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an awkward position as he tries to cultivate close relations with Iran, while also convincing U.S. officials that he is serious about quelling violence.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi security plan announced last month has yet to produce tangible results, at least in the view of Iraqis living under threat of car bombs, mortar attacks, stray gunfire and street crime.

The bodies of at least 19 men, all shot to death and most showing signs of torture, were found in Baghdad yesterday, police and morgue officials said. In addition, at least five people died when a car bomb exploded in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Mashtal.

In the city of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, a roadside bomb targeting a passing U.S. military convoy blew up instead under a civilian minivan, killing a woman.

In the Shiite neighborhoods of Ur and Shaab, in northern Baghdad, residents said U.S. and Iraqi forces set up checkpoints in the area yesterday morning, tying up traffic for hours but doing little to reassure people of the new security plan's effectiveness. Majid Abdullah, 42, who owns an auto parts shop in Shaab, said that most checkpoints had been dismantled by afternoon and that those remaining were manned by Iraqis, with U.S. troops passing by occasionally.

"Frankly speaking, there doesn't seem to be anything different in their activities compared to any other days," he said. "In fact, they don't seem that enthusiastic and rarely ever search vehicles and passers-by."

Abdullah complained that he had gone through the checkpoint several times in his car and had yet to be searched. "I want to be searched. We want them to be more diligent," he said

A resident of Ur said about 10 U.S. Stryker armored vehicles had snaked through her neighborhood but became stuck on a narrow street. Unable to turn around, she said, the first Stryker rammed down the walls of a school and drove through it, followed by the rest of the convoy.

Al-Maliki acknowledged delays in implementing the security plan he announced early last month and urged Iraqi military commanders to disprove skeptics who he said were doubting their ability or determination to stabilize Iraq.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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