The killing of Ihab al-Sharif, the newly appointed Egyptian ambassador to Iraq, by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq was the latest and most harrowing blow aimed by insurgents against Arab countries that have sent envoys to Iraq at the urging of the U.S. In just one day, Bahrain's chargé d'affaires was shot in the hand in a botched kidnapping attempt, and Pakistan's head of mission was attacked (he escaped unharmed and was recalled to Jordan). The U.S. and Iraq urged Baghdad's diplomatic community to remain steadfast. "U.S. diplomats aren't going to let terrorists deter us from doing our work to help the Iraqi people," the U.S. embassy said in a statement. The Egyptian foreign ministry said it was temporarily closing its embassy and recalling its diplomats but vowed that the murder would not impede its diplomatic efforts in Iraq.
But the circumstances of al-Sharif's killing have some puzzling elements. Why, for instance, was the Egyptian diplomat--who was abducted by as many as eight gunmen while driving in his jeep in western Baghdad--traveling alone in a city where foreigners of his importance are usually accompanied by heavily guarded caravans? One possibility is that al-Sharif was trying to hold secret talks with insurgents. Iraq's Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, lent that theory some credence at a press conference. "Some [diplomats] go to places on their own in order to meet some insurgents," he said. "We warned about doing such things before, as the results could be very serious." An Egyptian official, asked about the speculation, said only, "We are talking with those who are working toward stability in Iraq through the political process, not by picking up arms."
Al-Sharif may have been killed by the insurgents after the talks went sour. Or, possibly, because the talks were going too well. Divisions within the insurgency have begun to appear, with gun battles between Iraqi resistance cells and the foreign fighters led by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. Could al-Zarqawi's followers have abducted al-Sharif in an effort to thwart his negotiations with a rival insurgent group? If Egypt or other Arab intermediaries were able to persuade some insurgents to join the political process, al-Zarqawi would be more isolated in Iraq.