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US eyes protecting diplomats

Boost in violence aimed to undercut Iraqi government

BAGHDAD -- The US military is considering offering protection to foreign diplomats in Baghdad after Al Qaeda agents killed three Arab envoys this month, the American ambassador said yesterday.

''Coalition forces . . . are planning to look at this problem and see what could be done to fix the security for the diplomats," Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters. ''It's very important for foreign diplomats who come here to have a sense of security."

He spoke a day after Iraq's most feared terrorist group announced it killed two Algerian diplomats -- including the country's chief envoy in Iraq -- because of their government's ties to the United States and its crackdown on Islamic extremists.

Chief envoy Ali Belaroussi and diplomat Azzedine Belkadi were kidnapped outside their embassy in Baghdad's western neighborhood of Mansour. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility.

The group, headed by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and slaying of Egypt's top envoy and the attempted abduction of two other Muslim diplomats in a campaign to undercut support for the new Iraqi government among Arabs and Muslims.

The United States has urged Arab and Muslim countries to deepen their diplomatic ties to Baghdad.

Khalilzad said no final decision had been made on offering protection, and some Arab diplomats may fear the presence of US forces around diplomatic missions might actually draw insurgent attacks.

''We have not accepted taking on the mission at this point," Khalilzad said. ''But what we've agreed is, we will look at this, see what the problem is, and what the options might be for assisting."

Both the Algerians and the Egyptian diplomat had no personal bodyguards. Belaroussi told colleagues he felt no need for security because of Algeria's good relations with the Iraqi people and its opposition to the US-led invasion.

In Algeria, police detained Ali Belhadj, a former deputy leader of the banned Islamic Salvation Front, after he publicly praised Iraq's insurgency and condoned the killing of the two diplomats, an Algerian newspaper reported yesterday.

Belhadj, freed in 2003 after spending 12 years in prison, was apprehended Wednesday after the comments in a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera television, El Watan newspaper reported.

The kidnappings were part of a surge in insurgent attacks after the Shiite and Kurdish-led government was announced April 28. The US military announced yesterday that two American soldiers were killed and one was wounded in a roadside bombing the day before in Baghdad.

Another American soldier died Wednesday in a non-hostile vehicle accident in central Iraq, the US military said. That brought to eight the number of Americans killed in Iraq since Sunday night, when four members of the Georgia National Guard died in a bombing in Baghdad.

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