Correction to This Article
An early version of this article stated that Islamic law decrees the death penalty for any mentally competent male Muslim who renounces his faith. While death has historically been the penalty, it is today rarely invoked in formal court proceedings in the Muslim world. Muslim scholars are divided over the proper response to renunciation of the faith.

Rebels in Iraq Threaten to Kill Abducted Diplomat

By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 7, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 6 -- Al Qaeda in Iraq said Wednesday that it would execute an Egyptian diplomat who was kidnapped in Baghdad four days ago, calling him a traitor to Islam and representative of a country that is "allied to Jews and Christians," according to a statement on an Internet site associated with al Qaeda.

The statement said an al Qaeda Islamic law court would hand the diplomat, Ihab Sherif, over to the group's guerrillas "to carry out the punishment of the apostate . . . and to kill him."

The authenticity of the statement could not be verified independently. But earlier Wednesday, another posting bearing al Qaeda's name included photos of identification cards belonging to Sherif, whom the statement called "the devil's ambassador."

Sherif, 51, is Egypt's top diplomat in Iraq and had been scheduled to be promoted to ambassador. He disappeared Saturday night after reportedly leaving his house and driving alone to buy a newspaper. His four-wheel-drive vehicle was found Sunday, and a statement Tuesday attributed to al Qaeda asserted responsibility for his kidnapping.

Iraqi and foreign officials feared that Sherif, who would have been the first Arab ambassador in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, was targeted by insurgents to deter other countries from strengthening diplomatic ties with the new government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.

On Tuesday, two more Muslim diplomats were targeted in what authorities described as kidnapping attempts. In separate incidents, gunmen opened fire on the convoys of Pakistani Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan and Bahrain's charge d'affaires, Hassan Malallah Ansari. Pakistan immediately ordered Khan withdrawn to neighboring Jordan. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa announced Wednesday that Ansari, who suffered a minor gunshot wound, had been promoted to ambassador.

Jafari urged foreign countries not to withdraw their diplomats from Iraq, which values international ties as a sign of legitimacy for a Shiite Muslim-led government that has been in office for a little more than two months and is due to hand power to another government after elections set for Dec. 15.

"We hope all countries will stand beside us, to bolster the democratic process and continue to carry out their political work in Iraq, mindful of security procedures," Jafari told reporters.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Adam Hobson, said: "With Iraqi forces on the street getting increasingly better at providing security and with an elected government working hard to create a democratic and prosperous Iraq, we believe it's important for the international community to show support for the Iraqis by establishing and maintaining a diplomatic presence in the country."

Al Qaeda in Iraq -- led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden -- has asserted responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks in Iraq's two-year-old insurgency and for kidnapping and killing numerous foreigners. Many of the kidnapping victims have been beheaded, and video images of their executions have been posted on the Internet.

The Internet statement posted Wednesday in al Qaeda's name accused Egypt of fostering "disbelief" of Islam by recognizing the Iraqi government. Egypt had sent an ambassador "upon the suggestion of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice," the statement said.

The Egyptian government did not issue any immediate public response to al Qaeda's pledge to kill Sherif, and the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad did not answer telephone calls. In Cairo, a Foreign Ministry official quoted anonymously by the Associated Press said the government was "in continuous contact" with the Iraqi government "and all other forces of the Iraqi society" in an effort to win Sherif's release. Another Egyptian diplomat was kidnapped last July and later released unharmed.

Meanwhile, two car bombings near Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, killed at least 11 people and wounded 19 Wednesday, police officials told the Reuters news agency. The attacks in Jbeila occurred on a road into the town and at a car sales lot. The dead were mostly civilians.

The U.S. military said in a statement that Operation Sword, a sweep by about 1,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors and 100 Iraqi troops in the western city of Hit, had been completed and that a contingent of Marines and Iraqi soldiers would remain in the city "indefinitely to provide a security presence."

Hit, which has a population of about 120,000 and is 95 miles west of Baghdad, will be the westernmost town in Iraq to have a standing force of fully trained Iraqi troops, the statement said.

In the northern city of Tikrit, gunmen killed a city council member, Ali Ghalib. Witnesses said that the council member's tribe had promised to avenge the killing and that tensions in the city were high.

Special correspondent Salih Saifaldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company