BAGHDAD, Iraq – A British hostage appeared on a video posted on an Islamic Web site Wednesday weeping and pleading for his life as Iraq’s leader and U.S. officials crushed reports that a high-profile female Iraqi weapons scientist could be released from jail soon – as demanded by the kidnappers.
The captive, Kenneth Bigley, appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene. “I think this is possibly my last chance,” he said. “I don’t want to die.”
Later Wednesday, an Internet statement purportedly by a group which claimed to have kidnapped two Italian aid workers in Iraq said it had killed the women. The Web site posting could not be immediately verified. Simona Pari and Simona Torretta worked for “Un Ponte Per …” (“A Bridge to …”) when they were seized Sept. 7.
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, whom it abducted along with Bigley from the Westerners’ Baghdad home last week.
On Wednesday, the group also posted a video of Hensley’s killing on the Internet, as it had two days earlier of Armstrong’s beheading. Hensley’s decapitated body was found Wednesday in Baghdad.
The gruesome hostage drama played out as fighting raged on in Iraq, killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding four others.
Suicide attackers struck key diplomatic and commercial centers of the capital, and American tanks and troops searching for weapons stormed into the Sadr City slum, a stronghold of Shiite militants, only to come under a barrage of mortar and automatic weapons fire. The violence across Baghdad left at least 17 Iraqis dead and 100 injured and underscored the inability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to bring security to even the most vital areas of the capital.
U.S. and Iraqi troops battled with insurgents in the central city of Samarra, where U.S. forces had earlier claimed success against militants waging a 17-month insurgency, police said. At least one child was killed and five people wounded in the fighting, police said.
The confusion over the fate of female detainees began when a Justice Ministry official announced that Rihab Rashid Taha, a scientist who became known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, would be freed in the coming days because she was no longer a threat to national security.
The U.S. and Iraqi officials found themselves at odds over who had custody over Taha and another female scientist involved in Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons programs, with Iraqi national security adviser Qassim Daoud saying they were in the hands of Iraqi security forces and that “Iraqi judges decided to release them because they didn’t have any evidence.”
But a U.S. Embassy spokesman disagreed, saying the pair “are in our legal and physical custody.”
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the Associated Press that his government has begun reviewing the status of its detainees, including the two female scientists.
But he said the review process had nothing to do with the current hostage situation and had started weeks ago in Iraq.
“We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “No release takes place unless I authorize it.”
The conflicting U.S. and Iraqi statements raised questions over who has authority in the country, even after the hand-over of sovereignty to Allawi’s interim government in June. U.S. officials have been saying that they have been giving more decision-making power to Iraqis, including over security matters.
The U.S. military says it has two Iraqi women in custody – Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as “Mrs. Anthrax.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim announced that “Iraqi authorities have agreed with coalition forces to conditionally release Rihab Rashid Taha on bail.” He added that “the decision … has nothing to do with the threat made by the kidnappers.”
But soon afterward, a U.S. Embassy spokesman ruled out any immediate release. The two female scientists from Saddam’s regime “are in our legal and physical custody. Legal status of these two and many others is under constant review,” the spokesman said.
Representatives of the Iraqi government and U.S. coalition forces have identified a group of about 14 high-value detainees, including Taha, who may be eligible for release because they are no longer needed for questioning and do not pose a security threat, a multinational force official said on condition of anonymity.
The Iraqi government has already assented to all the names on the list, the official said. The list has gone to coalition forces and the U.S. Embassy for final approval.
The Iraqi government has also made a special request for the release of Ammash on humanitarian grounds, the official said. But because she is one of the top 55 most-wanted Iraqis on the so-called deck of cards, her case requires a Pentagon review.
“We want to make certain that there is no connection between the decision to release her with al-Zarqawi’s demands,” a Western official also said on condition of anonymity.
Al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group announced Tuesday it killed Hensley, saying their demands had not been met. Hensley would have marked his 49th birthday Wednesday. On Monday, the group released a video showing the beheading of Armstrong, whose body was found in Baghdad the same day.
The group warned in a Web statement that Bigley, 62, 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.
“Mr. Blair, I am nothing to you. Here’s just one person living in the United Kingdom, that’s all, with a family like you, like your family, your children, your boys, your wife,” the speaker said in the grainy video.
“Please, you can help. I know you can,” he said, addressing the British prime minister.
Earlier, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw appeared to hold out little hope for saving Bigley.
“We continue to do everything we can to secure Kenneth Bigley’s safe release, but it would be idle to pretend that there’s a great deal of hope,” Straw told reporters in New York.