A rocket attack aimed at a passing U.S. convoy on a commercial street in northern Baghdad killed four Iraqis and wounded 14 Friday, the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces said.
At the same time, kidnappings of foreigners continued unabated, with a total of eight employees of an Egyptian cell phone company abducted since Wednesday, Interior Ministry officials and a company employee said.
The rocket landed after 2 p.m. on a side street in the Beirut Square neighborhood off Palestine Street, a busy thoroughfare lined with shops. The rocket just missed a U.S. convoy of Humvees, which had turned onto a side street, and instead killed and injured Iraqi civilians in nearby shops, said Uday Nadum Jasim, an Iraqi national guardsman on the scene.
In Baghdad, two Egyptian engineers were taken late Thursday from an affluent neighborhood; the others _ four Egyptians and two Iraqis _ were abducted Wednesday while installing telecommunications towers near the volatile city of Fallujah, a company employee said.
The Egyptian cell phone company, Orascom, won a contract last October to set up cell phone service in the Baghdad area, and it has been operating under the name Iraqna. It had employed the two kidnapped engineers to develop software for its network in central Iraq, said a company employee who gave his name as Muhammad. The service deteriorated markedly over the summer and barely functions now.
The worsening security situation prompted U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad to warn anonymously that Saddam Hussein's trial on war crimes charges will likely not take place any time soon. The New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press each quoted an unnamed official as contradicting a recent pronouncement from Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, that Hussein's trial could commence as soon as next month.
Iraqis involved in the tribunal have said it could take more than a year to prepare for trials. First, they said, investigators must gather the necessary evidence, investigating judges must conduct preliminary proceedings and defense attorneys must have an opportunity to meet with the accused. Thus far, none of the defendants have had a chance to consult with an attorney, and continuing violence is preventing investigators from even beginning to do their job.
More than 140 foreigners have been abducted since a mass uprising in April. Most have been freed, but dozens have been killed, some in gruesome fashion at the hands of jihadist groups. Most of the kidnappings are done for profit, as the bandits try to sell their captives to militants or to the captives' companies or governments. The cell phone company workers were probably kidnapped for money, said Sabah Kadhum, a senior adviser in the Interior Ministry.
Such abductions, as well as the relentless pace of violence, have hobbled reconstruction efforts by driving foreigners into fortress compounds or hotels that ultimately keep them distant from the country they are trying to rebuild. Many companies have simply shut down operations, and one country, the Philippines, withdrew its troops ahead of schedule in response to a threat of death. Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing unrest in Britain over the fate of Kenneth Bigley, 62, a British engineer kidnapped last week and threatened with death.
On Friday, the Muslim Council of Britain sent a pair of negotiators to meet with religious leaders in Baghdad to try to win Bigley's release. The group described Daud Abdullah and Musharraf Hussain as "well-respected figures in the British Muslim community."
Bigley is being held by Monotheism and Holy War, a group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group released a video this week of Bigley pleading for his life. Earlier, the group beheaded two U.S. engineers, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, who were kidnapped with Bigley from their house in Mansur, an affluent Baghdad neighborhood.
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.