Gunmen dressed in Iraqi army uniforms kidnapped a top Iranian diplomat in Baghdad after a firefight with his guards, officials said yesterday, in an attack Tehran branded a "terrorist" act.
The abduction on Sunday of Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at Tehran's embassy, is expected to further fuel tensions between Iran and its archfoe Washington after US forces arrested five Iranians last month.
It came as security forces were pressing on with troop deployments in Baghdad ahead of a US-Iraqi crackdown in the capital aimed at curbing violence that left at least five people dead yesterday.
"There was a fight between the gunmen who were in Iraqi army uniforms and the Iranian second secretary's guards in central Karrada," a senior Iraqi official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
"After the clashes the gunmen escaped, taking Sharafi with them," the official said.
Tehran confirmed the abduction, charging that it was the work of gunmen linked to the Sunni-controlled Iraqi defense ministry.
"Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at the embassy in Baghdad, was abducted on Sunday by a group linked to the defense ministry, which operates under the supervision of US forces in Iraq," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.
He said Sharafi was snatched in a "terrorist action" outside the Baghdad branch of the Iranian state-owned Bank Melli and taken to an unknown location.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran considers this to be an aggressive move contrary to international laws and the Vienna convention and strongly condemns it," he added.
"It calls on the Iraqi government to free the diplomat as soon as possible and punish those who carry out actions that target the mutual interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq," he said.
The New York Times, quoting Iraqi officials, said security forces captured several suspects after pursuing their vehicles through the streets of Baghdad.
"The vehicle with the diplomat was not caught, though," it said.
The men captured were Iraqis with defense ministry identification, it said, adding that this raised "serious questions about whether government forces themselves were involved in the abduction."
The abduction was expected to increase tensions after US forces last month raided an Iranian office in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil and arrested five Iranians.
The men, who are still in US custody, were arrested on suspicion of supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
Tension between the two countries, already at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear program, were further heightened amid speculation that Iran was behind a deadly attack on US troops in the shrine city of Karbala. Five US troops were killed when militants dressed in US-style military uniforms raided a Karbala police center on Jan. 20.
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