Hostage Sagas Continue In Iraq

Pakistani citizens hold a rally Thursday, July 29, 2004 in Multan, Pakistan, to condemn the killing of two Pakistanis kidnapped by militants in Iraq. A militant group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq sent the Arabic television network a tape the station said showed the bodies of engineer Raja Azad, 49, and driver Sajad Naeem, 29, who went missing. (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)
The insurgent group of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi kidnapped a Somali truck driver in Iraq and threatened to behead him if his Kuwaiti company doesn't stop working there, according to a videotape aired Thursday.

Iraqi health officials, meanwhile, raised the death toll by two to 70 from a suicide car bomb that devastated a busy, shop-filled street in Baqouba. Casualties from the vehicle-born bomb blast, which targeted an Iraqi men waiting outside a police station to apply to join the police, overwhelmed Baqouba's hospital.

The blast, one of the deadliest single-bomb attacks since Saddam Hussein's fall more than a year ago, came just three days before the country is to convene a national conference that will choose an interim assembly — considered a crucial step toward establishing democracy.

Iraqi Health Ministry spokesman Saad al-Amili, announcing the higher death toll, said that 56 people were wounded.

In other recent developments:

  • The Iraqi national conference, considered a key step in the country's fledgling steps toward democracy, has been postponed for two weeks in an effort to entice boycotting parties to participate, a conference spokesman said Thursday. The conference had been scheduled to begin on Saturday, but was postponed at the request of the United Nations.
  • The U.S. military said fighting between insurgents and American forces west of Baghdad killed two U.S. Marines. The two Marines died in clashes Wednesday in Anbar province, the statement said. The U.S. military had initially said two coalition troops were killed during heavy fighting Wednesday in the Anbar city of Ramadi, but it had declined to reveal their nationalities. The deaths of the two Marines takes the number of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq to at least 908 since the war began, according to an Associated Press tally.

    The United States is looking for Saudi Arabia to take the lead in forming a Muslim security force to help Iraq stop an insurgency that hasn't abated since an interim government was formed last month. The issue was on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's agenda in talks Thursday with Iraq's prime minister, Ayad Allawi, in Jiddah. He also discussed it with top Saudi officials on Wednesday.

  • The Polish Defense Ministry announced that one of its soldiers was killed and six were wounded in an attack. The Polish casualties came when the troops were hit by shrapnel from a boobytrap set off by remote control, the ministry said.

    The videotape of the Somali, released by the Tawhid and Jihad group, was aired by pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera and showed three masked and armed militants standing behind a seated man waving a passport. Al-Jazeera's news presenter identified the hostage as Ali Ahmed Moussa and said the militants had threatened to behead their captive in 48 hours if the Kuwaiti company he works for doesn't meet its demands.

    Tawhid and Jihad has claimed responsibility before for a number of bloody attacks and beheadings of foreigners it has abducted, including U.S. businessman Nicholas Berg, South Korean translator Kim Sun-il and Bulgarian truck driver Georgi Lazov, 30.

    News of the latest hostage drama in Iraq followed Wednesday's announcement by another militant group that it had killed two Pakistani contractors hostage it had recently kidnapped who had worked for the Kuwait-based al-Tamimi group.

    In a videotape sent to Pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera Wednesday, a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq said they had carried out a threat to kill the Pakistanis because their country was discussing sending troops to Iraq. The newsreader said the video showed the corpses of the two men, but the station declined to show the footage.

    The men were identified by Pakistan as engineer Raja Azad, 49, and driver Sajad Naeem, 29, both of whom worked for the Kuwait-based al-Tamimi group in Baghdad.

    "Those who have committed this crime have caused the greatest harm both to humanity and Islam," a statement from Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his prime minister said Thursday.

    The large number of civilian casualties in attacks has angered many and even raised questions on Islamic Web sites, where the morality of killing Muslims who work for U.S. coalition forces in Iraq has been debated.

    In an audio recording posted Wednesday on one site, a speaker purported to be the spiritual adviser of an Iraqi insurgency group justified killing fellow Muslims when they protect infidels and also the deaths of bystanders in an attack.

    "If infidels take Muslims as protectors and Muslims do not fight them, it is allowed to kill the Muslims," said the speaker, identified as Sheik Abu Anas al-Shami, spiritual leader of Tawhid and Jihad, a group led by al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

    The speaker also said that if Muslims who "mingled" among infidels were killed in an attack, that would be justified because killing infidels is paramount. The tape was recorded before the June 28 handover of power.

    The attack in Baqouba targeted a police station, and many of the dead and wounded were among the hundreds of Iraqis gathered outside hoping to join the force, police said. The blast also ripped through a passing bus, killing 21.