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Care suspends operations in Iraq after director abducted

Margaret Hassan
Margaret Hassan

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Care International suspended operations in Iraq on Wednesday after gunmen seized the woman who ran the humanitarian organization's work in the country. The victim's Iraqi husband appealed to the kidnappers to free her "in the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood."

Two suicide car bombs exploded in Samarra, a city that U.S. and Iraqi forces claimed this month to have recaptured from insurgents. The two blasts, within 15 minutes of each other, killed an Iraqi child and wounded 13 people, including 11 U.S. soldiers and an interpreter, the Army said.

One of the bombs targeted a U.S. patrol that stopped to talk with children in city, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division in Tikrit. Residents said U.S. and Iraqi forces imposed a dusk to dawn curfew in the city, located 60 miles north of Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi forces seized control of Samarra early this month, and officials have cited Samarra as an example of how to take back towns and cities that have become insurgent strongholds.

A car bomb also shook central Baghdad at sunset, sending a large plume of smoke rising from the western bank of the Tigris River. There were no reports of casualties among U.S. troops, said Capt. Mitchell Zornes of the 1st Cavalry Division. Bursts of gunfire erupted following the blast, witnesses said, and the smoke could be seen rising north of the Jumhuria bridge and behind the Mansour Hotel.

Elsewhere, an influential Sunni Muslim clerical organization demanded the Iraqi government persuade the Americans to forgo a full-scale attack on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

"Iraqis consider Fallujah the symbol of their steadfastness and pride," said Sheik Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has links to some insurgents. "There is no reason to attack Fallujah. Attacking Fallujah is the wish of the (American) occupation troops and some interim government officials."

U.S. jets rocketed targets in Fallujah, hitting a key militant command center Wednesday, the U.S. Marines said. Residents said six people were killed but the report could not be independently confirmed. Another rocket at a women's college failed to explode, residents said.

CARE director Margaret Hassan, who holds British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was seized early Tuesday on her way to work in western Baghdad after gunmen blocked her route and dragged the driver and a companion from the car, her husband said.

Hassan, who is in her early 60s, is among the most widely known humanitarian officials in the Middle East and is also the most high-profile figure to fall victim to a wave of kidnappings in Iraq in recent months.

Al-Jazeera television broadcast a brief video showing Hassan, wearing a white blouse and appearing tense, sitting in a room with bare white walls. The video did not identify what group was holding her and contained no demand for her release.

Her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, made a plea on Arabic television, saying his wife had been helping Iraq for three decades.

"In the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood, I appeal to the kidnapers to free her because she has nothing to do with politics," he told Al-Arabiya.

The husband told Al-Jazeera that said his wife had not received threats and that the kidnappers had not contacted anyone with any demands as of Tuesday night.

The Iraqi government condemned the abductors. "Her kidnap is a clear indication of the base and bad intents of the terrorists who call themselves 'mujahedeen,' a clear insult to Islam and Iraq," the statement said.

Hassan has lived in Baghdad for 30 years, helping supply medicines and other humanitarian aid and speaking out about Iraqis' suffering under international sanctions during the 1990s.

CARE Australia, which coordinates the international agency's programs in Iraq, announced Wednesday it suspended operations because of the abduction, but it said staff would not be evacuated. It was unclear how many non-Iraqis work for CARE here.

Many non-governmental organizations began withdrawing international staffers after attacks on foreigners and their institutions began in earnest in the summer of 2003.

"Our staff are not operating currently there, they're certainly not working there now in light of the current situation," Robert Glasser, CARE Australia's chief executive officer, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said it was up to each non-governmental organization whether to keep staff in the country, noting "the dangers of operating in Iraq."

Militants have kidnapped at least seven other women in the past six months, but all were later released. Last month, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari were kidnapped but freed after three weeks in captivity.

At least 30 male hostages have been killed, including three Americans and a Briton beheaded by their captors.

In other developments, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick, 38, pleaded guilty Wednesday to five charges connected to the Abu Ghraib scandal. He was expected to be sentenced Thursday.