Egypt to cut staff in Baghdad mission
Egypt said yesterday it will cut staff at its mission in Baghdad after its top diplomat was killed, as Iraq urged fellow Arab and Muslim states to send ambassadors in defiance of attacks by al Qaeda insurgents.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the reduction was to protect staff at the mission after Al Qaeda in Iraq said it had killed top envoy Ihab el-Sherif.
But Iraq's Foreign Ministry appealed to Arab and Islamic countries not to be swayed by the kidnapping and killing of Mr Sherif, which it said was meant to deter them from upgrading their diplomatic missions in Iraq.
"Arab and Islamic countries are asked to prove their seriousness in combating terrorism and send their ambassadors to Baghdad so they send the right message to the terrorists."
Iraq's President promised top security for diplomats and Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, who has chided envoys for travelling without protection, said Iraqi armed escorts were always available.
A US general said the US military was discussing plans with the Iraqi government under which American and other troops could help protect diplomats in Baghdad.
"I'm not sure that, in the end, it will result in US forces directly guarding some of those diplomats," Major General William Webster told reporters in Washington by teleconference.
"We have not finalised our plan yet. But we certainly recognise we've got to do something very quickly," Major Webster, commander of multinational forces in the Baghdad area, said.
Police were hunting Mr Sherif's killers, a day after Cairo confirmed his death at the hands of al Qaeda kidnappers. He had been snatched off a Baghdad street on Saturday.
"Our investigations are continuing," a senior Interior Ministry official said. The Islamist militants posted a video showing Mr Sherif speaking but not his killing.
The Iraqi government has described the abduction and killing of Mr Sherif, as well as at least two other attacks on senior diplomats in the capital this week, as part of attempts by insurgents to isolate the new, US-backed government.
Pakistan's ambassador left the country after his motorcade was shot at on Tuesday. The same day, the envoy from the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain was shot in the hand as he drove to work.
Iraq had said last week that Egypt was planning to become the first Arab state to have a full-ranking ambassador in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 - something Cairo never confirmed. Opposition figures in Egypt said plans to upgrade Mr Sherif's job had led to his death.
Egypt's Aboul Gheit did not say how many staff would be cut at the mission, nor when the reduction would be implemented.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani dismissed suggestions that the attacks on the diplomats in Baghdad would further discourage the dispatch of emissaries from Arab capitals:
"It will have no effect," he said late on Thursday during a visit to the Shi'ite religious establishment in Najaf. (Reuters)
"Two countries, Syria and Jordan, have asked to reopen their embassies in Iraq. For our part, we will take strict security precautions to protect embassies and diplomatic residences."
Though publicly critical of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency, most Arab leaders are Sunnis and view with some mistrust the US-sponsored new government in Baghdad, run by Shi'ites from Iraq's long oppressed majority community and by non-Arab Kurds.
A U.S. military official linked the campaign against embassy staff to a crackdown by security forces on car bombings that may have caused insurgents to adopt new tactics for a time.
"If we come down hard on one kind of attack they shift to something else," he said. "A number of diplomats have been attacked. Our impression is that will continue and we've got to turn our attention to improving security."
Already a number of attacks on highly sensitive targets like Baghdad's fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound and the city's airport had been thwarted, he added: