BAGHDAD, Iraq – Militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said Saturday they have kidnapped three Turkish workers and threatened to behead them in 72 hours, heightening tensions as President Bush visited Turkey.
In new violence, an explosion possibly from a car bomb ripped through downtown Hillah, a largely Shiite Muslim city south of Baghdad, killing 19 people and wounding about 60, a senior Iraqi police official said. The official described the blast as a vicious attack on Iraqi civilians.
The bloodshed and the abduction – the latest claimed by al-Zarqawi’s movement, which beheaded two previous hostages, an American and a South Korean – threatened to cast a shadow over a NATO summit opening in Istanbul Monday, where Bush is seeking the alliance’s help in stabilizing Iraq.
The kidnappers demanded the Turks hold demonstrations protesting the visit by the “criminal” Bush and that Turkish companies stop working in Iraq, or else the hostages would be killed.
Iraq’s interim prime minister warned that if security does not improve, it may become necessary to delay national elections set for January – a key landmark in the path to democracy that the United States has tried to enshrine before handing power to the Iraqis on Wednesday.
The Jan. 31 deadline for elections laid out in Iraq’s interim constitution is “not absolute yet … But we hope, and all of us will work toward that objective,” Iyad Allawi told CBS News.
“However, security will be (the) main feature of whether we will be able to do it in January, February or March,” he said.
In central Baghdad, insurgents killed a U.S. soldier in an attack on a patrol Saturday, the military said.
Gunmen launched new attacks in the city of Baqouba, northeast of the capital, sparking battles that killed six insurgents and three civilians. The city was the scene of fierce fighting in a surprise offensive launched by al-Zarqawi on Thursday.
The Arab television station Al-Jazeera aired a video issued by the kidnappers, showing the three Turks kneeling on the ground in front of two black-clothed gunmen and a black banner emblazoned “Tawhid and Jihad,” the name of al-Zarqawi’s organization. The men held up Turkish passports.
In a written statement, the group demanded Turkish companies stop doing business with American forces in Iraq and called for “large demonstrations” in Turkey against the visit of “Bush the criminal.”
It said that if Turkey refused their demands, the hostages “will receive the just punishment of being beheaded.”
Al-Jazeera received the tape Saturday, an employee at the station told the Associated Press. The statement did not say when or where the three were abducted. It appeared the deadline was Tuesday, but the message did not specify what time it runs out.
The explosion in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, came Saturday evening outside the former Saddam Hussein mosque in a shopping area where residents traditionally while away hours in the cool of the evening, said police Brig. Gen. Qais Hamza Aboud, the commander of police in surrounding Babylon province.
Aboud told the Associated Press that the blast was caused by a booby-trapped car. He said it was a clear attack on civilians – men, women and children – because there were no police or coalition soldiers in the area. He said nine other cars were set ablaze and that many of the injured suffered severe burns.
Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded in the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil in northern Iraq, killing one person and injuring 18 people, including the culture minister of the pro-American Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In Baqouba, gunmen attacked the offices of two political parties and other buildings.
Three party members died and two were injured, hospital officials said.
U.S. Maj. Neal O’Brien, spokesman of the 1st Infantry Division, said four guerrillas – one wearing an explosives-packed vest – also attacked Baqouba’s blue-domed government building. Guards fired back, killing the four, he said. Two other insurgents died in an attack on a police station, O’Brien said.