BAGHDAD -- US forces captured two senior figures in Al Qaeda's branch in Iraq, the US military said yesterday, and one of Turkey's richest businessmen was reported kidnapped, appearing in a video along with a weeping employee saying they were being held hostage.
In Baghdad, police uncovered more bodies under the rubble after a suicide bomber blew up a gas tanker in an upscale Baghdad district, bringing the death toll in the Friday night attack to at least nine people.
The escalation in violence has come as the country prepares for a national election scheduled for Jan. 30. While majority Shi'ite Muslims have embraced the vote as a chance to assert their numerical strength, the minority Sunni community worries that the election will sideline Sunnis.
The New York Times reported that the Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunnis a certain number of ministry posts or other high-level jobs in the future government if, as is predicted, Sunni candidates fail in the elections. A Western diplomat said one idea that has been floated is the possibility of adding some of the top Sunni vote-getters to the 275-member legislature even if they lose.
The video of the two Turkish hostages was the first report of a kidnapping of foreigners in Iraq in weeks -- and it appeared the abduction netted one of the most high-profile victims yet.
Kahraman Sadikoglu is the president of the Istanbul-based Tuzla Shipyard and is famed in Turkey for having renovated and saved from ruin the "Savarona" -- one of the world's largest yachts, once used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder.
Sadikoglu appeared in the video, aired on Turkish television, alongside Ahmet Yurtdas, the captain of one of his ships. No kidnappers appeared in the footage or issued any statement claiming responsibility and no demands were made. The video's authenticity could not be confirmed.
"Today is Dec. 23. We were captured four or five days ago," Sadikoglu said. "We're fine and they will check us out, what we're doing here, and will hopefully release us. God is great."
Sadikoglu said he was working for the United Nations and the Iraqi government on a project clearing harbors of sunken ships. "We don't have any problems with the Iraqi government; we're creating jobs and food for the Iraqis," he said. "If that is a crime, too, then we will accept the punishment."
The two men had not been heard from since they left the southern Iraqi city of Basra by land Dec. 16, their families said.
Several Turkish newspapers said a ransom demand of $25 million had been made, but Foreign Ministry officials and family members of the hostages refused to confirm the reports.
More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq this year, and at least 34 of them -- including seven Turks -- have been killed by their captors. Besides the two Turks in yesterday's video, at least four foreigners are known to still be held, three of them Americans.
The US Marines said yesterday they captured two men who led cells in Anbar province for Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The province is a center for the insurgency and home to the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
A Marines statement identified the men as Saleh Arugayan Kahlil and Bassim Mohammad Hazeem. Their cells kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi National Guardsmen, carried out car bombings and other attacks in the Ramadi area, and "smuggled foreign terrorists into the country," the Marines said.
"This group is responsible for intimidating, attacking, and murdering innocent Iraqi civilians, Iraqi police and security forces, and business and political leaders throughout the Unbar province," the statement said.
Zarqawi's group, once known as Tawhid and Jihad, recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. It has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against US troops and government forces.
Violence has persisted across Iraq despite the US military's offensives last month aimed at putting down insurgents in several hotspots -- including their stronghold of Fallujah, which US forces captured.
Friday night, a suicide bomber detonated a butane gas truck in the upscale Mansour district near the Libyan and Moroccan embassies, hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left the capital, ending a one-day visit to speak to US troops.
Rescuers yesterday uncovered seven more bodies under the rubble of the blast, bringing the toll to nine Iraqis. At least 14 people were seriously wounded.
In other violence yesterday, a car bomb exploded as a US military convoy was passing through the southern town of Ein al-Nus, killing three Iraqis and wounding two, police said.
Gunmen shot dead Hasan Abdul-Ghani al-Rubaei, a professor at Baghdad University's medical school, as he drove his car along the dangerous Haifa street where militants often launch attacks.
And a roadside bomb exploded yesterday near the car of the governor of eastern Diyala province, wounding four of his guards, officials said. Governor Abdullah Rashid al-Jbouri was unharmed by the blast in the town of Khan Bani Saad, halfway between Baqouba and Baghdad, said Dr. Abdullah Mohammed of the Baqouba General Hospital.