Insurgents kidnapped the top official in Iraq's rebellious Anbar province on Tuesday and the deadline set by the captors of an Australian hostage passed with no word on his fate.
Raja Nawaf, who only became governor of Anbar a few days ago, was abducted with four bodyguards on the road from the town of Qaim, near the Syrian border, to the rebel stronghold of Ramadi, his brother, Hamed Nawaf, told Reuters.
The kidnappers, supporters of the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are demanding that Nawaf's tribe release some of the militant leader's followers it is holding, said Nawaf's brother and a member of the Ramadi city council.
Although it appears to be a tit-for-tat turf war, the fighting showed some Iraqis are putting up resistance to Zarqawi, whose followers have kidnapped and beheaded foreigners and launched suicide bomb attacks that have killed hundreds.
U.S. forces said they too continued an offensive launched three days ago against rebels in Anbar, along the Euphrates River running from the Syrian border to Ramadi. They said they were meeting "significant resistance" from organized units.
The abduction of the Anbar governor underscored the complex security challenge facing Iraq's new government as it tries to tame lawless regions where Zarqawi's ruthless followers are taking on Iraqi security forces, American troops and tribes.
"Hamed's tribe has kidnapped some of Zarqawi's people to force them to release him," said a member of the Ramadi city council. "And Zarqawi's people have kidnapped some of Hamed's tribes."
That hostage drama played out in Iraq's guerrilla heartland as a deadline set by an insurgent group holding 63-year-old Australian engineer Douglas Wood expired.
In a video shown on Al Jazeera television last week, Wood looked distraught as two masked insurgents pointed rifles at him. His head was shaved and he appeared to have a black eye.
The insurgent group, the Shura Council of the Mujahideen in Iraq, demanded Australia withdraw its troops from Iraq.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said there had been no word about Wood's fate since the deadline passed.
"We haven't heard anything ... we just don't know what to think and we are continuing to work on the case," he said.
"The sense we have is that the people who have taken Douglas Wood are more politically driven. So that makes it hard to know how to handle it."
U.S. ALLIES UNDER PRESSURE
Japan, another U.S. ally in Iraq, was also grappling with a hostage crisis.
One of Iraq's most feared insurgent groups, the Army of Ansar al-Sunna, said in an Internet statement it had ambushed a foreign security convoy near a U.S. base in western Iraq and captured a Japanese citizen. A picture of the man's passport posted on the Internet gave his name as Akihiko Saito, aged 44.
The group said video of the hostage, who works for a British security company, would be posted soon.
The Army of Ansar al-Sunna said it had captured Saito after ambushing a convoy carrying 12 Iraqis and five foreigners near the town of Hit in Anbar province. It said all those in the convoy except Saito were killed.
Japanese media said Saito was a 20-year veteran of the French Foreign Legion and had spent two years in Japan's army.
"He has serious injuries and we will soon issue a video showing him," his captors said in their Internet statement.
Ansar al-Sunna has killed scores of hostages, including foreigners from countries with no connection to the Iraq war. Last August, the group killed 12 Nepalese migrant workers, beheading one and then riddling the others with bullets.
Both Australia and Japan have troops in Iraq supporting the U.S. military. A new batch of 450 Australian soldiers is due to arrive soon in southern Iraq, taking the total of Australian troops in and around Iraq to about 1,400.
Japan has around 550 soldiers in Iraq, a largely symbolic deployment as they are not allowed to take part in combat.
Australia and Japan have repeatedly said they will not bow to demands of kidnappers. Besides Saito, six Japanese have been taken hostage in Iraq. Five were released but Shosei Koda, a backpacker, was beheaded by his captors last year.
In Baghdad, insurgents kept up the pressure on the new government with two more suicide car bomb attacks, killing eight people and wounding more than 20, police said.
Over the past two weeks a surge of guerrilla attacks has killed more than 300 Iraqis and wounded hundreds more.
The past few weeks have seen a sharp escalation in guerrilla attacks. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a U.S. military patrol in central Baghdad, killing eight Iraqis. A second suicide bomber targeted a base for the Baghdad river police on the banks of the Tigris, wounding three policemen.
Iraqi officials say Zarqawi's fighters and Saddam Hussein loyalists regrouped as the country's new leaders bickered for three months following Jan. 30 elections.
U.S. troops have also suffered heavy losses in the surge in attacks. Four U.S. Marines were killed in three attacks in western Iraq on Monday, bringing to 14 the number of American troops killed in action in Iraq since Saturday.
In the fighting along the Euphrates northwest of Ramadi, the Marines have said they have killed dozens of guerrillas in the biggest U.S. offensive since November's storming of the rebel bastion of Falluja, eastwards downriver toward Baghdad.