Iraq hostage nightmare as US threatens besieged city

Fierce battles rage in Baghdad. Blair: 'We must not fail in this historic struggle'
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The Independent Online

A wave of hostage-taking in Iraq dramatically increased pressure on the US and British occupation authorities yesterday, with a wounded American being shown off on television and more than a dozen foreign civilians known to be held hostage last night.

The concern over hostages came as a crucial 24 hours loomed at the besieged town of Fallujah, with the US sending a third marine battalion to the town and warning they would move in if negotiations between Iraqi government officials and Fallujah city leaders to end violence there were not successful.

The stakes surrounding Fallujah were heightened last night when a tape was shown on Al-Jazeera television with a warning from militants they would kill an American hostage, Thomas Hamill, if US troops did not end their siege.

Mr Hamill, a civilian contractor working for the US government, w2as discovered to have been kidnapped when a car pulled up in front of an Australian cameraman with Mr Hamill and his kidnappers. Mr Hamill told the cameraman, before the car drove off, he was a member of a convoy that had been ambushed. The US had said that a convoy with civilian contractors and two US troops which had been travelling near Baghdad was unaccounted for.

One of his kidnappers, from a group calling itself "Mujahedin ­ The Kidnappers" said: "Our one request is to break the siege of the city of the mosques [Fallujah] during the 12 hours from six o'clock on Saturday evening. If not, he will be dealt with worse than those who were killed and burned in Fallujah."

The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) said last night that they were holding talks with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader who has become the focus of this week's violence after it was revealed an arrest warrant had been issued for him in connection with the murder of a moderate cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Qays al-Khazali, an aide to Mr Sadr, said he was willing to start peace talks if foreign troops left Najaf, freed detained Sadr followers and ended the siege of Fallujah.

An IGC spokesman said the cleric could achieve part of his goals if he renounced violence and if the US-led occupation authorities chose not to pursue the arrest warrant.

However, the council also urged the US not to storm Fallujah. In a statement yesterday it criticised "military solutions and the policy of collective punishment that has fallen on innocent civilians".

An IGC spokesman said the insurgents and US officials had agreed late last night to a ceasefire in principle in Fallujah starting this morning, but he cast doubt on whether it would come into effect, given each sides' demands. "Fighters in the city say they want the Americans to withdraw, but I don't know how likely that is," Mahmoud Othman, the council member, said.

Lt-Col Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, said: "What is coming is the destruction of anti-coalition forces in Fallujah ... they have two choices: submit or die."

Yesterday, Al-Jazeera reported that the Mujahedin Brigades, a group purporting to be that which had kidnapped three Japanese civilians this week, was to release the hostages today. They are Noriaki Imai, who had planned to look into the effects of depleted-uranium weapons, Nahoko Takato, a female aid worker, and Soichiro Koriyama, a freelance journalist. Early this morning, the Japanese news agency Kyodo quoted government officials saying they would be freed by 5am, Iraqi time. The group that kidnapped the trio had threatened to kill them if Japanese troops did not leave. The group told the Arabic-language television network they made the decision after mediation by the Islamic Clerics Committee, an Iraqi Sunni Muslim organisation. The news served only to increase anxiety for the trio's families.

Tony Blair, writing in a Sunday newspaper from holiday in Bermuda, said the Allies were "locked in a historic struggle" and must not fail as such failure would mean "the hope of freedom and religious tolerance would be snuffed out".

Apart from the dozen foreign civilians known to be held hostage, at least three more are missing, including a British contractor, Gary Teeley, 37, who disappeared in the southern town of Nasiriyah on Thursday. The German Foreign Ministry said two of its embassy security officials had gone missing while travelling from Jordan to the embassy in Baghdad. It was reported last night that both had been killed.

A group calling itself the Martyr Ahmed Yassin Brigades claimed in a video to have 30 hostages from the US, Japan, Israel, Bulgaria, Spain and South Korea. None was shown and there was no way to verify the claims. Those known to be held include two aid workers kidnapped in Najaf: Fadi Ihsan Fadel, a Syrian-born Canadian who works for the International Rescue Committee, and Nabil Razouk, 30, an Arab from East Jerusalem who works for the US Agency for International Development. The group claims they are Israeli spies. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President arrived in Japan yesterday. He was expected to urge the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to stand firm, despite the hundreds of protesters outside parliament calling for an end to Japan's involvement. The captors of the Japanese had threatened to burn the hostages alive at noon BST unless Tokyo agrees to pull its troops out of Iraq. Mr Koizumi refused.

The plight of foreign hostages in Iraq is deepening the crisis facing Mr Blair and George Bush as they meet in Washington later this week. Heavy fighting with Sunni and Shia insurgents has increased American troop losses.

The US is demanding the handover of Iraqis who killed and mutilated four American civilians in the town on 31 March and the return of Iraqi police to keep order. They say fighters in Fallujah must also "lay down their arms" and renounce their membership in extremist groups.

The offer of a truce by the US in Fallujah, where some 1,500 civilians have been killed or wounded, has come because the wave of anti-US sentiment, provoking attacks throughout the country. There were further ambushes of US convoys yesterday on the road from Baghdad. In one attack a tank was set on fire by a rocket-propelled grenade, which locals said was fired by a 10-year-old boy. In another, a roadside bomb destroyed a truck near Baghdad International Airport. A US airman was killed and two were wounded in a mortar attack on an airbase at Balad, north of Baghdad, the military said. More than 40 Iraqis were reported dead in fighting around the capital.

The US has also threatened to attack Mr Sadr in Najaf but not until after the present Shia religious festival. Mr Sadr, for his part, has told his men not to shoot even if shot at. More than a million Shias are expected to attend the Arbain festival in Karbala today.The Army of the Mahdi is in control of the access to the city.