U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte presented his credentials to Iraq’s new interim government Tuesday and vowed to make the joint fight against insurgents his top priority on a day when militants killed three U.S. Marines and at least six Iraqis.
On the first full day since the U.S.-led administration handed the reins of government to the Iraqis, those fighting American and other foreign forces displayed both defiance and mercy.
One militant group, believed to be aligned with suspected Al Qaeda operative Abu Musab Zarqawi, released three Turkish captives they had been threatening to behead, saying the gesture was “for the sake of their Muslim brothers.” Two other Turks were expected to be released as well after their employer promised to end all ties with U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
There was no word, however, of an abducted Lebanese-born U.S. Marine and a Pakistani who was a driver for the now-disbanded administration.
Zarqawi claimed responsibility for decapitating American communications specialist Nicholas Berg last month and a South Korean interpreter last week, sowing revulsion among many Iraqis. The decision to release the three Turks may have reflected a reluctance to further alienate Iraqis by killing fellow Muslims from a country that was party to neither the invasion nor the occupation.
Arabic-language TV channel Al Jazeera reported Monday that another extremist group claimed to have executed a U.S. soldier, Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio. The broadcast showed a grainy image of a blindfolded man kneeling beside a shallow pit before he was shot. Military officials were analyzing the videotape but could not confirm that the figure shown was Maupin, who had been missing since April 9, when his convoy was ambushed.
Negroponte and the ambassadors of Australia and Denmark formally took their posts in a brief ceremony in a hall of the U.S.-controlled, heavily fortified Green Zone, presenting their portfolios to interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
“Yesterday’s restoration of full sovereignty to Iraq cleared the way for establishment of normal diplomatic relations between two free, independent nations,” said Negroponte, who had arrived in Baghdad less than 24 hours earlier.
The ceremony restored full diplomatic ties between Washington and Baghdad for the first time since 1990, when then-President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and set the stage for the Persian Gulf War.
Passing along greetings from President Bush, Negroponte said the U.S. administration had three objectives in its relationship with the new Iraq: helping defeat “terrorists and criminal elements who oppose a free Iraq”; aiding reconstruction and economic development; and supporting Iraq’s democratization and the rule of law.
The return of diplomatic life to Iraq promised to help heal the social and economic wounds of sanctions, exclusion, invasion and conquest that marked the last dozen years of Hussein’s Baath Party dictatorship. If the grave security situation eases with Iraqi self-rule, envoys from Europe, the Americas and Asia are expected to return in a steady pace.
Negroponte, a career foreign service officer who left the post of ambassador to the United Nations to take the Iraq job, toured a building in the Green Zone that will be outfitted to serve as the embassy. He also moved into the former U.S. residence on the banks of the Tigris River.
Attacks persisted Tuesday, but they fell short of militants’ vows to wreak havoc upon the new leadership. A roadside bomb detonated in a southeast Baghdad neighborhood as a U.S. convoy passed, killing three Marines, the U.S. military said. Their identities were not immediately released. Witness Farhan Toma said the explosion blew the lead Humvee off the roadway.
A similar improvised bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk as a Kurdish police chief was arriving to work. It killed a bodyguard and wounded the official, who was believed to have been the target. Also in that region, two Kurdish guards died in an ambush on the road between Mosul and Irbil.
Insurgent assaults on two police stations -- one in Baghdad and one in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles to the south -- killed a policeman and two attackers.
In a precaution against terrorists -- who, according to intelligence reports, were planning a wave of attacks to coincide with today’s original hand-over date -- Iraqi and multinational forces deployed unusually heavy security across the capital.
U.S. tanks and armored vehicles patrolled major thoroughfares, and Iraqi forces stopped drivers at checkpoints to search cars for weapons.
Streets near government facilities or the homes of officials were closed or shielded by extra cordons of armed guards. Aware of the danger, Iraqis seemed tolerant -- even welcoming -- of the extraordinary measures.
“If they want me to, I myself would get out and begin searching cars,” Khalaf Jabbar, a 55-year-old retired army officer, said as police searched his Toyota near Baghdad University.
Times staff writer John Daniszewski and special correspondent Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.