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Egypt envoy to Iraq kidnapped

Baghdad, July 3 (Reuters): Egypt’s envoy to Iraq has been kidnapped in Baghdad, possibly in response to reports he was to become the first full-ranking Arab ambassador to the US-backed Iraqi government, diplomats and police sources said today.

Ihab el-Sherif, the head of mission, was cornered by gunmen in cars while on a short trip to buy a newspaper near his home last evening and had not been heard from since, a diplomat said.

“The motives are believed to be political,” he said, noting that Iraq’s foreign minister had said just last week that Egypt would become the first Arab state to appoint a full-ranking ambassador to Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Egyptian foreign ministry, which said it was “checking reports” Sherif had “disappeared”, has yet to confirm it plans to upgrade his post. The Baghdad mission had no comment.

Iraqi police sources said they had found the envoy’s white four-wheel drive car undamaged not far from his home.

An upgrade to full ambassadorial status for Sherif on the part of Egypt, the most populous and traditionally most powerful Arab state, could enhance the standing of a new Iraqi government many Arabs view with suspicion because of its backing from the US and sectarian ties to Shia Iran.

“He was buying a newspaper on Saturday evening when two BMWs full of gunmen blocked his way and kidnapped him,” the diplomat said, adding there had been no word from the kidnappers.

It appeared the envoy had been on his own, he said.

More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped in the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some have been killed. Many have been released after the payment of ransoms to criminal gangs.

Others have been taken by insurgents from Iraq’s Sunni Arab community ' a minority in Iraq but the majority in most other Arab states ' who have made political demands.

A senior Egyptian diplomat was kidnapped in the Iraqi capital a year ago and released unharmed after several days. Those kidnappers released a statement condemning an Egyptian offer of assistance to the US-installed Iraqi government. Full details of the incident, however, were never made public.

The kidnapping of the envoy was an uncomfortable reminder of insecurity in Iraq as the new, Shia-led government strives to encourage foreign investment following a tour abroad last month by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other ministers.

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