WASHINGTON, May 9: US military officials in Iraq are now focusing more on fighting Iraqi guerillas and foreign fighters than loyalists of the Saddam Hussein government, the Washington Post said on Monday. The shift in priorities follows an increase in suicide attacks over the last weeks and assumes that the Iraqi extremists and foreign fighters pose a greater and more immediate threat to security, the Post reported, quoting miltary sources.

US officials had earlier described armed resistance to the US-led occupation as led by ‘former regime elements’ and ‘dead enders’ still loyal to Saddam.

But since the Jan 30 elections, those guerillas have pulled back, at least temporarily, and are looking at new strategies and exploring a deal with the government, senior US officials in Baghdad told the Post.

Several commanders however warned that the shift was still based more on intuition than solid proof, and that views differed among US intelligence experts. —AFP

JAPANESE HOSTAGE: A Japanese employee of a foreign security firm was kidnapped in Iraq, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura was quoted as saying on Monday by Kyodo News after an Al Qaeda-linked group claimed to have a Japanese hostage.

Kyodo News said a Cypriot security firm had also confirmed the man was on its payroll. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, visiting Moscow for World War II anniversary ceremonies, has been informed of the incident, public broadcaster NHK said.

The Al Qaeda-linked group said it had seized a Japanese hostage during a “fierce battle” in western Iraq, in a statement posted on a website.

Identity card photographs accompanying the statement from the Army of Ansar al Sunna gave the hostage’s name as Akihiko Saito, 44.

Japanese forces are on a historic mission to Iraq as it is the first time since World War II that Tokyo has deployed the military to a country where there is active fighting. Family’s plea: Relatives of Australian hostage Douglas Wood pleaded publicly with his Iraq captors on Monday for him to be given “emergency” high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart medicines.

“We ask Douglas’s captors to allow him emergency drugs,” said a statement in Arabic issued by the Australian embassy in Baghdad.

“He suffers from dangerous, life-threatening illnesses.” Wood’s family asked that a “mediator” be allowed to deliver the drugs, offering a list of five medications that the 63-year-old eningeer should be taking daily.

The health statement came just hours ahead of a 72-hour deadline set by his abductors on Friday for Australia to start pulling out its troops.—AFP