BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – A deadline set for the killing of four Western peace workers taken hostage in Iraq passed without news Saturday after kidnappers put to death an Egyptian working for the U.S. military there.
Hours after the American ambassador in Iraq called for calm before next Thursday”s election, candidates, campaigners and U.S. soldiers came under fire across the country.
A former mayor in the southern Shi”ite holy city of Najaf said he survived an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb went off near his convoy, while in Mosul in the north, gunmen shot two members of another party as they put up election posters, killing one and wounding the other.
Four U.S. soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in and around Baghdad as the capital braced for a rise in violence ahead of the election — the first for a full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein was deposed.
Thousands of police and soldiers will be on the streets on Dec. 15 to try to ensure Iraqis can vote safely.
The dead Egyptian, named by the Egyptian news agency MENA as 46-year-old Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Hilali, worked as a translator in Saddam”s home town of Tikrit before he was taken hostage this week. Police said his body was found near a village north of Tikrit with his identity papers in his pocket.
He was the eighth foreigner abducted in Iraq since late November. One other, a U.S. security contractor, has been killed, according to the Islamist group which seized him, but its claim in an Internet statement Thursday has yet to be independently verified.
A previously little-known group calling itself Swords of Truth says it is holding the four Western captives — two Canadians, a Briton and an American, identified as Tom Fox of Clearbrook, Virginia.
Two days ago the group said it would kill the hostages by Saturday if its demand for the release of thousands of prisoners from Iraqi jails was not met, extending its deadline by two days.
Fox”s daughter Katherine appeared on CNN on Saturday, asking his captors to spare him.
"Both my father and I believe that the Iraqi people have legitimate concern regarding the U.S. government”s occupation and presence in Iraq," she said. "We believe that these grievances, however, will not be resolved by taking my father”s life.
"As he and our family have previously stated, my father is not willing to sacrifice his dedication to the Iraqi people for any armed assistance from the U.S. government."
The Iraqi government and the U.S. military said they had released 238 prisoners from Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca — the two main detention centers for some 14,000 guerrilla suspects in Iraq, whose detention is a widespread source of grievance among the Sunni minority.
But the Americans stressed the release was part of normal operations and not a response to the kidnapping.
"We will continue to release more and more detainees," said the U.S. military, which frees hundreds of prisoners each month but does not usually make statements on their release.
The two other foreigners abducted recently are a German archeologist and a Frenchman who was dragged screaming from his home in Baghdad earlier this week.
EX-MAYOR OF NAJAF
The former mayor attacked in Najaf was Adnan al-Zurfi, an independent candidate in a city where political rivalry has boiled over in the run-up to the vote.
"On my way back to my party office, a roadside bomb exploded targeting my convoy, wounding three of my guards," he told Reuters, blaming two political rivals but refusing to name them.
Last Sunday, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi survived what he said was an attempt to kill him in Najaf. He and a group of supporters were chased out of the city”s holiest mosque under a hail of rocks and shoes. He told Reuters Saturday his group had lost 11 members killed and about 20 wounded in two weeks.
Allawi, emerging as a credible threat to the Shi”ite coalition which governs Iraq, said one man tried to pull a gun on him but dropped it in the chaos.
The ruling Islamist coalition, supported by many of the Shi”ite majority, is expected once again to be the biggest party in the new national assembly. The Kurdish bloc, Allawi”s list and two Sunni Arab coalitions are also expected to prosper.
Allawi launched a withering attack on the government”s record at a meeting in Baghdad Saturday.
"It does not know how to deal with terrorism and defeat it," he said, taking aim also at the pro-government militias which Sunnis accuse of running death squads against them.
"Instead, the government has allowed irregular militias to take control, which has led to an increase in killing, terrorism, abduction and mass murder."