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Militants Reportedly Abduct Iranian Diplomat in Iraq - 2004-08-08

Militants in Iraq have reportedly kidnapped an Iranian diplomat, and the Iraqi government has reinstated the death penalty.

Iranian Embassy officials say Fereidoun Jihani, Tehran's consul in Kerbala, disappeared Wednesday on his way to the southern city from Baghdad.

The al-Arabiya television channel aired a videotape made by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, which said it had kidnapped the diplomat. The group accused him of inciting sectarian strife in Iraq, and warned other countries against interfering in Iraq's affairs.

Mr. Jihani is the second high-ranking diplomat to be abducted in Iraq in recent weeks. Another group kidnapped an Egyptian Embassy official last month, but released him unharmed a few days later.

News of the kidnapping came on the same day that Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi paid a surprise visit to the city of Najaf, where fighting has raged for days between U.S. troops and militant followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shia cleric who lives there.

Najaf is one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam, and is home to one of its most sacred sites, a shrine to the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed.

Prime Minister Allawi told the insurgents to lay down their weapons and leave the holy sites, including the Shrine of Imam Ali. He said, "We will not allow anyone to take up arms against the government. They should join with the Iraqi community. This is their last chance to put down their weapons."

Fighting around the Shrine of Imam Ali has been intense, and the guerrillas have used a nearby cemetery as their main staging point. U.S. troops have attacked the position from the ground and the air, and there have been reports that the holy site has been damaged in the fighting.

On Saturday, Mr. Allawi said he does not blame Moqtada al-Sadr for the actions of the militants who claim to be his followers. He offered the radical cleric a chance to distance himself from their uprising. But the prime minister did not meet with Mr. al-Sadr on his visit to Najaf.

In other news, the Iraqi government has reinstated the death penalty, which was suspended by the U.S.-led provisional administration after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq's interim human rights minister said capital punishment is being brought back reluctantly, because of the severity of the current security crisis. But he stressed that it will not be used as freely as it was during Saddam's regime. Many of Iraq's current government leaders were ardent opponents of the death penalty at that time.

It is still not clear how the reinstatement of the death penalty will affect the outcome of Saddam Hussein's trial on war crimes charges.