BAGHDAD, July 4: Iraqi and US troops combed suspected insurgent hideouts in west Baghdad on Monday after Egypt’s ambassador designate became the first foreign head of mission kidnapped in the 15-month-old hostage crisis.

The US military meanwhile announced the arrest of a Tunisian suspected of bringing more than 100 suicide bombers into Iraq on behalf of Al-Qaeda.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction of Ihab al-Sharif, who was set to become the first Arab ambassador to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003.

The Egyptian government appealed for the swift release of the 51-year-old father of two and called on his captors not to mistreat him.

US and Iraqi soldiers scoured restive districts west of the airport, including the Al-Jamiaa neighbourhood where Sharif was abducted.

“Soldiers are conducting offensive operations against terrorist safe havens on the west side of Baghdad airport,” Sergeant David Abrams told AFP.

“I will not speculate whether this is linked to the kidnapping of the ambassador because this operation is still ongoing.”

A later statement said that 100 suspects had been detained in the sweep, including “individuals from Egypt”. Some 850 Iraqi and US soldiers had taken part.

Three Iraqis were killed and three wounded in two roadside bombing in west and south Baghdad, the interior ministry said.

Sharif was abducted by seven armed men when he stopped his car outside two shops, according to eyewitnesses.

He had been named ambassador on June 1 but had yet to formally present his credentials.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit appealed to Sharif’s captors not to harm him.

“We hope he is released shortly, God willing, so he can continue his good and dedicated work,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an African summit in Libya.

“We expect him to be well treated for the Iraqi people are true Muslims.”

Insurgents briefly held another Egyptian diplomat in July 2004 and also kidnapped an Iranian envoy, but both were later released unharmed.

In continuing violence, gunmen barged into the home of Gergis Mohammed Amin, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the main northern city of Mosul, and killed him as his family watched on, his party said.

Iraqi forces killed one and arrested 18 suspects in the assassination of senior Shia MP Sheikh Dhari al-Fayad last week, a spokesman said.

The US military announced the arrest in Mosul of Tunisian Imad Nassar Ahmed Amarah, also known as Abu Hamza, on suspicion of running a network of safehouses for would-be suicide bombers.

It said he was suspected of working for Abu Talha, an alleged aide of Al-Qaeda frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was captured two weeks ago.

“Evidence collected indicated that over one hundred suicide bombers have passed through and operated out of (Abu) Hamza’s terrorist safe houses,” a statement said.

A statement posted on the internet in the name of two insurgent groups — the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of the Mujahedeen — announced the appointment of a joint spokesman with future negotiations with US and Iraqi officials in mind.

But the spokesman, Ibrahim al-Shammari, denied reports, upheld by Washington, that such contacts were already under way.

“Negotiations are a part of our political programme and they are not happening at the moment because of the situation on the ground,” Shammari told the Al-Jazeera news channel.

“The United States doesn’t want to negotiate but they want scorched-earth politics.”

US troops meanwhile celebrated the July 4 independence day holiday amid mounting controversy over their presence in the violence-torn country.

Despite falling domestic support, President George W. Bush has vowed to keep the estimated 140,000 US service personnel in the country until Iraq’s forces are ready to take over but has refused to set a timetable.

The Iraqi government has backed Bush’s position but said on Sunday it was concerned about a recent rise in Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of US fire.—AFP

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