No end in sight

As the U.S. death toll in Iraq hits 1,000, two Italian aid workers are kidnapped and new fighting erupts in Sadr City.

Published September 8, 2004 2:35PM (EDT)

The number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq reached 1,000 Tuesday, with no sign of an end to the insurgency amid the news that gunmen abducted two Italian aid workers and two Iraqis in Baghdad in a brazen attack that will alarm foreigners already on edge.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the latest Pentagon figures showed that 997 American troops and three civilian employees of the Defense Department had been killed in Iraq.

At least 36 Iraqis and one U.S. soldier were killed, and 203 people injured, in renewed clashes between U.S. troops and supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Tuesday. The upsurge of fresh fighting occurred in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed sympathy for the 1,000 U.S. dead and said he was confident the interim Iraqi government would find a way to retake cities now in the hands of insurgents.

However, in the latest of a spate of kidnappings, about 20 men with Kalashnikovs and pistols with silencers drove up to a private house belonging to the humanitarian organization Bridge to Baghdad in a busy commercial area of the Iraqi capital and rushed inside in broad daylight Tuesday.

They left with two Italian staff, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, and two Iraqis, a woman who worked for an Italian organization, Intersos, and a male employee of Bridge to Baghdad.

A spokesman for Bridge to Baghdad, Lello Rienzi, told reporters in Rome that the men were from an unidentified Islamic group. "We had no sign of danger," he said, adding that the women "believed they were working in complete security."

Witnesses described the kidnapping as "extremely professional" and said a well-dressed man wearing a suit and tie had led the operation. "Four cars pulled up outside our house. About 20 guys suddenly burst inside. They made us sit on the ground and started beating us," one eyewitness, Haider Muhammad Ali, 26, said. "They kidnapped the Italian women and an Iraqi girl. The women didn't scream. They just went quietly with the kidnappers. We were completely terrified. We were 100 percent convinced we would all die."

Around 15 people were inside the house at the time. The kidnappers took five hostages -- but one man, an Iraqi, escaped in the confusion. None of the guards at the house had weapons, Ali said. "We are a humanitarian organization and we don't believe in them."

The chief of the Italian intelligence service, SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, recently warned that hostage takers might target women for extra emotional impact.

Numerous Iraqis and Westerners have been abducted by political groups, and criminal gangs demanding ransom, but there is growing concern among some that gangs seeking large amounts of ransom are now targeting non-Iraqis. Last week, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co. said it paid $500,000 in ransom for seven of its employees. The latest abductions are likely to fuel uncertainty over the fate of two French journalists whose kidnappers have reportedly demanded $5 million for their release.

It was not clear last night whether the motivation behind yesterday's kidnapping was political or financial. Italy has about 2,700 troops in Iraq, the third largest number after the U.S. and Britain, and its pro-American government has refused to cave in to militant demands that they leave.

Torretta, the head of the organization's Iraq operation, has been in the country since before the war started. Pari arrived in Iraq in June 2003, and was working on a school project in the capital.

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