Iraqi authorities believe spate of kidnappings may be aimed at disrupting Dec. 15 election |

Iraqi authorities believe spate of kidnappings may be aimed at disrupting Dec. 15 election

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Al-Jazeera broadcast video Tuesday of four Western peace activists held hostage, part of a new wave of kidnappings that police fear is central to a campaign of disrupting elections.The brief, blurry tape was shown the same day German TV displayed a photo of a blindfolded German woman being led away by armed captors in Iraq. The kidnappers threatened to kill aid worker Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver unless Germany halts all contacts with the Iraqi government.Also Tuesday, two American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, a Sunni cleric was assassinated as he left a mosque, and six Iranian pilgrims were seized near a Shiite religious shrine.The footage of the four Westerners showed Norman Kember, a retired British professor with a shock of white hair, sitting on the floor with three other men. The camera revealed Kember’s passport, but the other hostages were not identified.Al-Jazeera said the four were seized by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which claimed they were spies working under the cover of Christian peace activists. It was not clear when the video was made.The captives were members of the Chicago-based aid group Christian Peacemaker Teams, which confirmed they disappeared Saturday. Besides Kember, Canadian officials said the hostages included two Canadians and an American whose names have not been released.A group spokeswoman said Christian Peacemaker Teams strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and does not consider itself a fundamentalist organization.”We are very strict about this: We do not do any evangelism, we are not missionaries,” said Jessica Phillips. “Our interest is to bring an end to the violence and destruction of civilian life in Iraq.”Its first activists went to Iraq in 2002, six months before the U.S.-led invasion, Phillips said, adding that a main mission since the invasion has been documenting alleged human rights abuses by U.S. forces.The German woman and her Iraqi driver were kidnapped Friday, the German government announced. ARD public television said it obtained a video in which the kidnappers made their threats. The station posted a photo on its Web site showing what appears to be Osthoff and her driver blindfolded on the floor, with three masked militants standing by, one with a rocket-propelled grenade.Osthoff’s mother told Germany’s N24 news station that her daughter was an archaeologist who was working for a German aid organization distributing medicine and medical supplies since before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.Germany has ruled out sending troops to Iraq and opposed the U.S.-led war, but has been training Iraqi police and military outside the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed for Osthoff’s release.”The German government sharply condemns the act and urgently appeals to the perpetrators to return both safely and without delay,” Merkel said. “The German government will do everything in its power to bring both back to safety.”The six Iranian pilgrims were seized Tuesday near a Shiite religious shrine north of Baghdad, police said. Iranian television reported that all were freed Tuesday night. Iraq and Iran agreed this year to exclude pilgrim visits to shrines in Baghdad and Samarra because of the dangerous security situation.Iraq was swept by a wave of foreigner kidnappings and beheadings in 2004 and early 2005, but they have dropped off in recent months as many Western groups have left and security precautions for those who remain have tightened. Insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq, have seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38 – including three Americans.It was unclear whether the recent kidnappings were the work of a single group or simply coincidental. However, police believed they may be part of an insurgent campaign to discredit the government and disrupt the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.”Terrorists will try to destabilize the situation during the election period” in order to discourage people from voting, police Maj. Falah Mohammedawi said. “They will try to do this through kidnappings, assassinations and threats to citizens. We have our complete security plan to confront this.”Sheik Hamza Abbas, the Sunni cleric who was assassinated Tuesday, had made contacts with the Americans during the siege of Fallujah last year and had been denounced as a collaborator, residents said. Later, he severed contacts with the Americans.Abbas, head of the Religious Scholars Council in Fallujah and the mufti of Anbar province, died when two gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons as he was leaving a mosque, his brother Dr. Ahmed Abbas said. He was in his mid 60s.In other violence, police said a suicide car bomber killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounded five when he drove into an army patrol in Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad.U.S. and Iraqi officials hope a big turnout in the December election will undermine the insurgency and improve chances for the United States and its partners to begin reducing troop levels in Iraq next year.To do that, the U.S.-led coalition needs to accelerate the training of an Iraqi army and police force to assume greater security responsibility.President Bush said he would make decisions about troop levels based on the advice of military commanders.”If they tell me the Iraqis are ready to take more and more responsibility and that we’ll be able to bring some Americans home, I will do that,” the president told reporters in Texas. “It’s their recommendation.”Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who manages the training of Iraqi security forces, said 212,000 police and soldiers have been trained and equipped, although he suggested that more needs to be done.”They lack some capabilities that we still have to provide them and will continue to have to provide them for a period of time,” Dempsey told National Public Radio. “They’re short officers because we brought in some senior officers, and we grew some junior leaders but not enough. They require about 8,000 junior leaders, and they’re hovering just now about 4,500 or so.”—Associated Press reporters David Rising in Berlin, Michael Tarm in Chicago and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.—On the Net:Christian Peacemaker Teams:

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