US says no sign 2 Marines seized in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — The US military said on Sunday it had no reason to believe a militant group’s claim to have seized two Marines during fighting in Iraq, but said it was doing an inventory of personnel all the same.

“There are no indications that Al Qaeda claims of having kidnapped two Marines in western Iraq are true,” Marines Spokesman Major Neil Murphy said in a statement.

“Multi-National Force West is conducting checks to verify all Marines are accounted for,” he added.

A statement posted on an Internet site frequently used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, one of the country’s most feared groups, earlier said: “Al Qaeda soldiers succeeded in kidnapping two Marines … Al Qaeda gives the infidels 24 hours to release female Sunni Muslim prisoners … or they should not bother to look for their children.” The statement was signed with a name that often accompanies the group’s announcements, but could not be authenticated.

It said the Marines had been captured during Operation Iron Fist, the latest of several recent offensives by about 1,000 US troops against Al Qaeda around the western city of Qaim on the Syrian border.

The US military said it had killed eight guerrillas on Saturday, and rejected allegations by local doctors that civilians had also been killed in US air strikes.

Al Qaeda plan to spread violence

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor told Reuters that documents seized after troops killed a purported aide to Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, indicated a plan to spread Islamist violence to other Arab countries.

“We got hold of a very important letter from Abu Azzam to Zarqawi asking him to begin to move a number of Arab fighters to the countries they came from, to transfer their experience in car bombings in Iraq,” Jabor said in an interview in Amman.

“So you will see insurgencies in other countries,” said Jabor, a member of the Shiite Islamist SCIRI Party, a key component of the Shiite- and Kurdish-led coalition government.

Foreign Arab militants now numbered fewer than 1,000, compared to between 2,500 and 3,000 six months ago, he said, though security forces were also expecting a spike in bombings ahead of an October 15 referendum on a post-Saddam constitution.

After an opinion poll forecast turnout would be as high as 80 per cent, one of Iraq’s electoral commissioners said voter registration had gone well, including among the once dominant Sunni Arab minority, which largely boycotted January elections.

US and Iraqi leaders hope the vote can draw the nation together, but critics say it may only entrench division.

“There is an enthusiasm to vote. Even in the last month we have registered one million more people,” Farid Ayar told Reuters. “There will be attacks on the day, but I don’t think it will be worse than we saw in the January elections.

“What can the insurgents do that’s worse? There are already car bombs everyday.” General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, said the level of Sunni participation in the political process was more important than approval of the constitution.

“If a legitimate government emerges that is broadly seen as being representative of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish interests, I think there is no reason to suppose that we can’t bring force levels down in the spring,” he said.

And General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, told CNN: “The people of Iraq think of themselves as Iraqis, and people are not interested necessarily in seeing the fragmentation of the country. And I don’t see that happening.”

In the Reuters interview, Jabor lashed out at Iraq’s fellow US ally, Saudi Arabia, for saying Iraq could break up along sectarian and ethnic lines, fuelling wider regional conflict.

Iraq’s leaders have urged fellow Arab governments, including Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to do more to help prevent the influx of foreign fighters and funding for the insurgency.

But the new administration in Baghdad has struggled to win acceptance from the Sunni Muslim leaders of the rest of the Arab world, who remain suspicious of its dependence on Washington and sectarian ties to non-Arab, Shiite Iran.

Telling Saudi Arabia to mind its own business, Jabor lashed out at comments 10 days ago by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal, who said Iraq was heading towards disintegration and voiced disquiet over the growing influence of Iran.

“We as Iraqis are responsible for solving our own problems,” Jabor said. He was speaking a day after his brother, a doctor, was kidnapped and later freed by gunmen in Baghdad.

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