The top Egyptian diplomat in Iraq disappeared Saturday night and was presumed to have been kidnapped, according to diplomats quoted Sunday by news services.
Ihab Sherif, the chief of mission at the Egyptian Embassy, was accosted by two carloads of gunmen as he was driving in Baghdad, apparently to buy a newspaper, the Reuters news agency quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying. Witnesses quoted by the Associated Press said the gunmen pistol-whipped Sherif, accused him of being an American spy and abducted him.
The embassy's staff did not respond to requests for information Sunday, and officials at the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said they would not comment. In Cairo, the Egyptian State Information Service issued a three-paragraph statement saying the government was checking the veracity of the report about Sherif's disappearance with the Iraqi government and other parties. The statement appealed for his safety and security, but provided no details about what happened.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Muslim political group, condemned the apparent kidnapping and demanded Sherif's immediate release.
The Egyptian government posted Sherif, 51, to Baghdad on June 1 as its top envoy and was planning to make him ambassador as part of restoring full diplomatic relations with Iraq. No Arab countries currently have ambassadors in Baghdad, and Iraq's two-month-old government praised Egypt for being the first country to take such a step.
Sherif would be the second Egyptian diplomat abducted in Iraq in about a year. Mohamed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb was seized June 23, 2004, by insurgents who claimed they wanted to deter Egypt from deploying troops in Iraq. He was freed a month later after Egypt reaffirmed it had no intention of sending soldiers.
More than 200 foreigners and several hundred Iraqis have been kidnapped since the Iraqi insurgency started two years ago. Many, including a handful of Americans, have been killed, some of them beheaded by radical Islamic guerrillas. Far more, however, have been freed after a ransom was paid to kidnappers. Iraqi and U.S. authorities have said the bulk of kidnappings in Iraq are carried out by common criminals, some of whom seek to sell their captives to insurgent groups.
The level of insurgent violence was relatively low on Sunday. A car bombing near Kirkuk, an ethnically volatile city about 150 miles north of Baghdad, killed two police officers and severely wounded a third, according to police Col. Adil Ibrahim. Near the western city of Ramadi, a suicide car bomb was detonated at a checkpoint run by U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops. Police said at least four Iraqi soldiers were killed and five Marines were wounded, but subsequent casualty counts compiled by news services listed only two wounded Marines and no deaths.
Correspondent Daniel Williams in Cairo and special correspondent Marwan Ani in Kirkuk contributed to this report.