Hostage pleads for his life as U.S. officials rule out prisoner release
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Authorities insisted on Thursday that they won’t give in to militants’ demands to free female Iraqi prisoners despite the plea of a tearful British hostage begging Britain to save his life in a video released by his captors.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said that increasing violence must not be used as a pretext for delaying elections scheduled for late January.
Al-Sistani “stresses the necessity of holding elections on time and the necessity of preparing the atmosphere … under international supervision to be credible and transparent,” Hamed al-Khafaf, an aide to the ayatollah, said Thursday in a telephone interview from Beirut.
Iraq’s Shiite majority is eager to hold elections since they expect to dominate whatever government emerges. U.N. chief Kofi Annan, however, has questioned whether elections can take place if violence does not ease.
Violence has intensified in recent weeks – with insurgents setting off near-daily car bombs. For a second day, U.S. forces battled Shiite militiamen in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, with U.S. warplanes firing on insurgents. Hospital officials said at least one person was killed and 12 were wounded, many of them children.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in an address to a joint session of Congress, said elections would be held as scheduled and insisted U.S. and Iraqi forces would rein in the insurgency.
“Elections will occur in Iraq on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time,” Allawi said. “We could hold elections tomorrow” in 15 of 18 provinces, he said, even though terror operatives hope to disrupt them.
He cautioned, however, that the election may not come off perfectly. But he assured it will be free and fair, “a giant step” in Iraq’s political evolution.
The fighting and rash of kidnappings have shown the vulnerability even in the capital, where British hostage Kenneth Bigley and two American colleagues were abducted from their home last week. The two Americans were beheaded – their slayings shown on grisly videos posted on the Internet – and their bodies dumped not far from their Baghdad residence.
Allawi expressed his condolences for the Americans’ deaths. “Yet as we mourn these losses, we must not forget the progress we are making or what is at stake in Iraq. We are fighting for peace and democracy,” he told U.S. lawmakers.
In a video made public Wednesday, Bigley appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene and meet his kidnappers’ demands. “I think this is possibly my last chance,” he said. “I don’t want to die.”
Bigley’s brother, Paul, accused the United States of wrecking efforts to save his brother’s life after U.S. officials and Allawi quickly quashed a comment by an Iraqi official that one of the female prisoners would be freed by Thursday.
“That was a shadow of light in a big, long, dark, damp, filthy, cold tunnel. Now this has been sabotaged,” Paul Bigley told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday.
Bigley’s wife appealed to the kidnappers to release her husband. Sombat Bigley, a Thai woman, said she had seen the video with Bigley’s plea for help.
“We have been married for seven years and I love him very much … I desperately want to be reunited with my husband,” she said, reading a Thai-language statement in front of news television cameras in Bangkok.
The 62-year-old Bigley was being held by a militant group led by Jordanian-born terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group has already beheaded Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, demanding the release of all female prisoners in Iraq.
Two high-profile female security detainees are in custody – Rihab Rashid Taha, a scientist who became known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as “Mrs. Anthrax.”
A dispute broke out Wednesday when Allawi’s Justice Ministry announced that Taha would be freed on bail “Wednesday or Thursday” because she was no longer a threat to national security.
But the U.S. Embassy and Allawi quickly said the women would not be released soon. Allawi underlined that U.S. and Iraqi authorities would not give in to hostage-takers’ demands.
“We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages,” Allawi told The Associated Press. “Really, my heart goes out for the victims of terrorism, and their families and we are trying to do our best to ensure the release of them.”
Iraqi national security adviser Qassim Dawoud said Thursday that while the status of prisoners – including Taha – is under review, there was “no question” of making decisions on them “in the light of the demands of a terrorist group which has taken three hostages and criminally and barbarically murdered two of them.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials also found themselves at odds over who had custody over Taha and Ammash. Dawoud said they were in the hands of Iraqi security forces and that “Iraqi judges decided to release them because they didn’t have any evidence.”
A U.S. Embassy spokesman disagreed, saying the two “are in our legal and physical custody.”
Dawoud on Thursday sought to clear up the matter, saying the two sides were jointly reviewing the status of prisoners, including that of Taha – but not Ammash.
In another hostage drama, two statements surfaced on the Internet from different groups, each claiming to have killed two kidnapped Italian aid workers. The second statement said a video of the slaying of the two women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, would be made public, but Italy cast doubt on both claims’ authenticity.
“Italian intelligence services … believe these claims to be completely unreliable,” Enzo Bianco, the head of the parliament commission overseeing secret services, told Italian news agencies.
The first statement came Wednesday from a group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organization Iraq, which said it killed the two women because Italy had ignored demand to withdraw troops from Iraq.
A new statement Thursday was signed by a group named the Supporters of al-Zawahri, saying the heads of the two women – “criminal agents of Italian intelligence” – were “chopped off by knife without pity or mercy.”
It said it killed the women because its demands – the departure of Italian forces, the release of female prisoners in Iraq, and the help in gaining freedom for female Chechen prisoners and all Arab detainees in Israel – were not met.
The gruesome hostage drama played out as fighting raged on in Iraq. At least 20 people – including three U.S. soldiers – were killed and more than 100 wounded on Wednesday.
In Sadr City on Thursday, U.S. warplanes and helicopters roared overhead and residents said loud explosions could be heard for hours. Militia fighters returned fire with machine guns.
An American Bradley fighting vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and caught fire, according to a U.S. military report. It was not clear if there were any casualties.
In the northeastern city of Mosul, gunmen killed a senior official of Iraq’s North Oil Co. on Thursday. Sana Toma Sulaiman, the deputy director of the company’s oil products department in Nineveh province, was shot dead as he headed to work, said Hazim Jallawi, a spokesman for the Nineveh governor’s office.
A top U.S. general said Pentagon officials were not ruling out that more U.S. troops will be needed to secure January’s elections.
“I think we will need more troops than we currently have,” Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. troops in the region, said Wednesday. But, he said, Pentagon officials believe the need will be filled by Iraqis or international forces.
Tawhid and Jihad – Arabic for “Monotheism and Holy War” – has claimed responsibility for the slaying of at least seven hostages, including American Nicholas Berg. More than 130 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, and at least 26 of them have been killed.
The group warned in a Web statement that Bigley would be the next to die unless all Iraqi women are released from jail – though it did not set a deadline as it has in past statements.
In Wednesday’s video, Bigley said Blair was the only man who could keep his kidnappers from killing him.
“Please, you can help,” the speaker said in the grainy video. “I know you can.”