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US Denies Involvement in Kidnapping of Iranian Diplomat

Iranian officials are blaming the U.S. military for playing a role in the kidnapping of a top Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. But American officials in Iraq insist U.S. forces were not involved. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from northern Iraq.

Iranian officials say Iraqis bearing military identification snatched Jalal Sharafi, a top secretary at the Iranian Embassy, while he drove through central Baghdad on Sunday. Iran's official news agency Tuesday read a foreign ministry statement alleging the Iraqis were operating under the command of the U.S. military.

The statement denounced the abduction and demanded the Iraqi government move quickly to secure the release of the diplomat.

A spokesman for the U.S. military said the incident was under investigation but there has been nothing to indicate U.S. units took part in the abduction.

The incident took place during a period of increasing tension between Washington and Tehran. U.S. officials have accused Iran of supplying explosives for insurgent attacks, and in recent months U.S. forces in Iraq have detained at least eight Iranians and accused them of participating in the insurgency. Tehran has denied the accusations.

In Baghdad Tuesday at least 24 people were killed in bombings and other attacks. The U.S. military also reported an American Marine died as a result of injuries sustained on Monday.

U.S. and Iraqi officials continue preparations for new tightened security measures for the Iraqi capital. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared on national television to urge the military not to allow sectarian divisions to affect the operation.

Mr. Maliki said Iraqi soldiers must not distinguish between Baghdad's different sectarian groups. He also insisted Iraqi politicians will have no authority over how the military carries out the operation.

At a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, praised the Iraqi commander in charge of the operation, Lieutenant General Aboud Qanbar, for treating Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods equally. And he said the Iraqi troops are arriving in the capital on schedule.

"They are flowing into Baghdad on the timeline that they're supposed to be flowing in," he said. "So, it'll be a little while longer before full operations begin. But in those instances so far where we have had the opportunity to go against Shia' criminals and Sunni criminals, he (the Iraqi commander) has been very balanced in his approach to that."

At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Iraqi forces are performing "okay" in the early stages of the Baghdad security operation. He quoted his top commander in Iraq as saying the Iraqi units are at about 60 percent of their full strength, with another 25 percent of their soldiers expected to join them after finishing approved leave.

In the coming weeks some 90,000 Iraqi and U.S. forces will begin jointly patrolling Baghdad's streets to try to end the capital city's ongoing sectarian violence.