Monday, July 17, 2006

Suicide bomber kills 21, Iraqi oil official seized

Suicide bomber kills 21, Iraqi oil official seized
By Mariam Karouny and Ibon Villelabeitia

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed at least 21 people in a cafe north of Baghdad on Sunday, while the head of Iraq's North Oil Company was kidnapped in the capital, the second high-profile abduction in two days.

The evening blast at the popular cafe in the town of Tuz Khurmatu also wounded 25 people, police Colonel Abbas Mohammed said. Most of the victims were older men, another police source added. Hospital officials in the town put the death toll at 21.

Gunmen earlier seized top oil official Adel Qazaz from his car in northern Baghdad as police continued to search for the chief of the national Olympic Committee, Ahmed al-Hadjiya, who was abducted from a meeting along with 30 others on Saturday.

The kidnapping of Qazaz is a blow to the country's vital oil sector, which has been trying to attract foreign investment to rebuild its dilapidated infrastructure. He was the second top oil official to have been kidnapped in little over a month.

Muthana al-Badri, director general of Iraqi's State Company for Oil Projects, has not been seen since gunmen abducted him from his car on June 8.

The oil sector, seeking to recover from decades of war and sanctions, has been hit by rebel attacks as well as smuggling and corruption. Oil provides almost all of Iraq's state revenues and is seen as crucial to its economic recovery.

Qazaz's North Oil Company is in charge of Iraq's northern oil fields. Exports from the fields, briefly restored last month after a lengthy suspension, have been at a standstill again since last week.

An Oil Ministry official stressed that work at the company would continue as normal on Monday, despite Qazaz's kidnapping.

He said Qazaz had been traveling back to the northern oil city of Kirkuk when gunmen in two cars forced his vehicle to stop. His bodyguards were overpowered and the oil official driven away.


Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told CNN "Late Edition" earlier that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government was treating the kidnapping of sports chief Hadjiya as a top priority.

"Prime Minister Maliki is very, very concerned about the chairman. We have not reached the bottom of this problem exactly what happened. We are investigating this."

There have been conflicting reports about the circumstances of the kidnapping, but a witness told Reuters on Sunday that gunmen wearing blue camouflage uniforms had stormed an Iraqi Olympics Committee meeting and abducted about 30 people.

Colleagues said on Sunday that six of those had since been released. Two bodyguards, however, are known to have been killed during and immediately after the mass abduction.

The kidnappings come despite a security crackdown in the capital which has sought to rein in sectarian and insurgent violence that has pushed the country toward civil war.

In addition to the cafe blast, at least 19 other people were killed in shootings and bombings. In one audacious attack, gunmen raided the main hospital in Baquba north of Baghdad, killing four policemen and freeing 13 wounded prisoners.

A British soldier was also killed and another wounded during an early morning raid to capture a suspect in the southern Shi'ite city of Basra. After dark, residents heard several dozen explosions from apparent mortar attacks on British bases. A British spokesman confirmed at least one attack.

One Iraqi political party marched in the city during the day in support of Lebanon's Hizbollah Shi'ite militants. It was unclear if the mortar attack was related to hostility among some Iraqi Shi'ites to the United States, Israel and their allies.

Saddam Hussein and three co-accused in his trial on crimes against humanity spent a ninth day without food, the U.S. military said, adding that the four were in good health.

They are staging a hunger strike to demand better protection for defense lawyers after a third was killed last month.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed)