U.S. troops raid Palestinian mission in Baghdad

By The Associated Press, May 29 2003

First such action against a foreign mission; Palestinian officials say building ransacked.

BAGHDAD - U.S. troops raided the Palestinian Authority's mission in Baghdad on Thursday and arrested 11 members - including its top diplomat - after ransacking the building, Palestinian officials said Thursday. A top U.S. general said only eight people had been arrested.

"They even took all of our water bottles and food cans," said Mohamed Abdul Wahab, a mission official. "They behaved like common thieves." Although U.S. troops have conducted numerous sweeps against suspected criminals and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime, Wednesday's raid was the first such action against a foreign diplomatic mission.

Wahab said the soldiers seized three AK-47 automatic rifles that the embassy's sentries had used to guard the building during the looting that laid waste to much of the capital after U.S. troops seized the city. The rifles and a handgun, which was also confiscated, were duly licensed by Iraq's former government, he said.

He said that on Wednesday morning, dozens of U.S. troops escorted by several armored vehicles at the building in Baghdad's embassy district. After the guards opened the gate, they were immediately arrested by soldiers who burst into the building and detained officials, drivers and gardeners.

The detained men included charge d'affairs Majah Abdul Rahman, who was running the mission in the ambassador's absence, Wahab said. They were later taken to a U.S. base in the center of the city, he said.

They remained in custody Thursday afternoon, Wahab said. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, confirmed Thursday that troops had entered the diplomatic compound during a search operation in the area.

"That happened in a part of Baghdad where we lost a soldier," he told reporters.

McKiernan said seven Palestinians and a Syrian had been detained, adding that he did not know how many of them had diplomatic status. Troops seized four AK-47s, four hand grenades, and a .38 caliber pistol, he said.

The embassy was badly damaged during last month's fighting in Baghdad. On the building's facade, a direct hit had opened a hole about one meter wide next to a large mural of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.

Staffers said the explosion was caused by a rocket fired from an attack helicopter. Nobody was injured in the attack. Wahab said the soldiers used shotguns to blast open office doors, though he said all were unlocked or had keys in them.

Many of the doors in the building bore the marks of combat boots and several had their locks shot off. An embassy safe appeared to have been opened after the door hinges had been broken off, and a number of file cabinets were standing open with all of their contents removed.

An official photo of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was lying smashed on the floor.

Wahab said two embassy flags had been taken away by the soldiers. He said the troops had told staffers that the mission did not have authorization to possess automatic weapons.

"Every embassy has guns, we used them to ward off looters," Wahab said. He complained that no system had been set up to license firearms since Saddam's overthrow.

"To attack a foreign embassy is a criminal act and a breach of diplomatic immunity," Wahab said.