Egyptian ambassador is kidnapped by Iraqi gunmen in street attack

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The Independent Online

Ihab al-Sherif, 51, evidently underestimated the extreme danger of his new posting in Iraq by going out alone without bodyguards to buy a newspaper.

Three Iraqi witnesses who saw his abduction in the al-Jamaa district said he was driving alone in a car with diplomatic plates. When he stopped to buy a newspaper in Rabie Street eight gunmen attacked, one shouting that he was an "American spy". One of them struck him on the head with his pistol butt before he was stuffed into the trunk of a car and driven away at high speed.

Kidnapping of Iraqis and foreigners is a common crime in Iraq and it is astonishing that Mr al-Sherif should not have been accompanied by armed bodyguards as are other diplomats in Baghdad. He arrived in the city on 1 June, having previously served as Egyptian charge d'affaires in Israel and Syria, and may not have appreciated the danger he faced.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Mr al-Sherif was missing, saying that "contacts are underway with the Iraqi government and all other sides to clear up the truth about the disappearance of ambassador Ihab al-Sherif".

Last month, the Egyptian government said it was upgrading relations with Iraq to full ambassadorial status.

Iraq, backed by the United States, has been trying to get Arab states to station more senior diplomats in Baghdad to underline that they accept the legitimacy of the present interim government.

Mr al-Sherif is a polished Middle East professional with a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne and four Arabic guide books to his credit. On his travels, he takes a notebook and a camera. Between postings, he turns the raw material into books, with the aim of guiding his readers beyond international stereotypes.

In 1998, when he was in Damascus, Germany rewarded him with an order of merit for one of his books, Germany Today - A Tour in the Land of Thought, Arts and Innovation. He has also written about France and India, as well as penning a wider European study, including Britain.

Most kidnapping in Iraq has a purely commercial motive though the kidnappers sometimes make political demands as cover.

Favourite targets include businessmen, doctors and lawyers. The police have had no success in catching kidnap gangs. Many well-off Iraqis have fled the country, citing fear of kidnapping as their main motive. A few foreigners have been seized for political reasons. In July last year, Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, the third-ranking diplomat at the Egyptian embassy, was briefly detained by militants who said they wanted to deter Egypt from sending troops to Iraq. Egypt has been training Iraqi security forces and civil servants, 140 of whom arrived in Cairo last week.

Western embassies in Iraq, including the British, have, in many cases, withdrawn into the Green Zone where they are defended by US troops and foreign security companies. That is more secure but is widely criticised by Iraqi and western officials because it prevents diplomats having any real knowledge of Iraq. Ghazi al-Yawer, the former interim president, told friends: "Life in the Green Zone has the same relation to real Iraqi life as a safari park has to the jungle."

Aside from kidnappers, trigger-happy US troops liable to open fire at any moment pose a danger to the lives of Iraqis and foreigners alike. Salah Jmor, a Swiss-Iraqi citizen of Kurdish descent, was shot dead by gunfire from a US convoy in Baghdad last week said his brother who was with him in a car.

He had been a refugee in Switzerland from 25 years and was recently nominated as trade minister for the Kurdistan autonomous region.