Steady violence threatens Iraq's diplomatic relations

Two envoys survived attacks Tuesday, three days after Egypt's top diplomat was kidnapped.

Attacks on senior Arab and Pakistani diplomats in Baghdad over the past week not only underscore the fact that the city remains one of the most dangerous in the world but are likely to complicate Iraq's efforts to enhance foreign relations, especially within the Muslim world.

Tuesday's failed assassination attempt on Pakistan's top envoy came just hours after gunmen wounded Bahrain's senior diplomat. The attacks, which also followed Saturday night's kidnapping of Egypt's ambassador-designate to Iraq, occurred as some Arab and Muslim states were finally moving toward a full diplomatic relationship with Baghdad.

In late June, Egyptian officials said Ihad al-Sherif would be named ambassador, though his designation was still pending at the time of his kidnapping. Jordan also said that it would soon appoint a full ambassador to the war-torn nation. Other members of the Arab league were expected to follow suit.

Since the US toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in March 2003, Iraq has been a diplomatic minefield for Arab states. They've been caught between their public's anger at the US invasion and American pressure to participate in efforts to stabilize the nation.

Until Iraq's elections this spring, Arab states took the position that the country was not fully sovereign, and therefore full diplomatic missions were not possible. Since then, there's been some foot-dragging, both because of the dangers to diplomats in Baghdad and lingering concerns about the legitimacy of the new government, which relies on the US military for its security.

It's unclear who was behind the attacks, or even if they are connected. But it's probably not a coincidence that the envoys are all from close American allies.

The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is the home port for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, while Egypt is one of the three largest recipients of US civilian and military aid, and has been cooperating with US efforts to speed up the training of the new Iraqi Army. Pakistan, while not an Arab nation, has been directly involved with the US war effort in Afghanistan.

Last July, Egyptian diplomat Mohammed Mamdouh Qutb was kidnapped and held for three days as he left a mosque following Friday prayers. His kidnappers, who called themselves the Lions of God Brigade, released him after receiving Egyptian assurances that the country would not send troops to Iraq.

No demands have yet been made for the release of the Egyptian diplomat. Officials in Cairo say Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit has been in constant contact with his Iraqi counterparts to secure Mr. Sherif's release.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, on condition of anonymity, said it was too soon to say if the kidnapping would affect Cairo's diplomatic plans for Iraq. Jordan, though, is indicating its concerns over security could lead to further delays. Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher told the daily al-Arab al-Yom that delays in appointing the country's ambassador until now have been due to security concerns.

Egypt's decision to appoint an ambassador was hailed by the current Iraqi government as an important first step. "I would like to salute Egypt ... [for] showing regional leadership by taking the decision to appoint the first Arab ambassador,'' Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in late June at a conference on Iraq's future and security in Belgium at which Iraqi officials pushed hard for closer diplomatic ties with their region.

Nevertheless, the risks to diplomats from countries seen as close to the US has been high since almost the beginning of the occupation.

In August 2003, a car-bomb attack on Jordan's embassy killed one diplomat and four Iraqi policemen, in one of the first car-bombings of the US occupation. A car bomb was also used against the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad in October 2003.

After Tuesday's attack on Pakistani envoy Mohammed Younis Khan, Pakistan withdrew its ambassador from Baghdad and said the envoy would be relocated to Jordan.

Bahrain's envoy, Hassan Malallah al-Ansari, was not seriously wounded in the shooting. It's unclear if he will remain in Iraq.

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