Iraqis tell Britain: Release our prisoners or we kill hostage

48-hour ultimatum to UK. Chilling video shows captives. Blair warned of Iraq 'chaos'
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The Independent Online

A 62-year-old British engineer was last night less than 48 hours from death at the hands of his kidnappers in Iraq, intensifying the atmosphere of crisis at today's meeting between Tony Blair and the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.

A 62-year-old British engineer was last night less than 48 hours from death at the hands of his kidnappers in Iraq, intensifying the atmosphere of crisis at today's meeting between Tony Blair and the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.

In footage issued by his captors, Kenneth Bigley and two American colleagues seized with him, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, were shown kneeling and blindfolded, with a hooded gunman pointing his weapon at the head of one of the men. A terrorist from the group, one of the most ruthless fighting the US-led occupation of Iraq, said their throats would be cut unless Muslim women prisoners were released from Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr prisons. The Ministry of Defence and the US military both insisted last night that no women were held at either jail.

The threat to the three hostages came on another day of extreme violence across Iraq, the worst incident being an attack by a suicide bomber on a National Guard headquarters in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, which killed 23 people and wounded 53 ­ mostly teenagers queuing up for jobs in the military.

In Baghdad, two US soldiers were killed and eight injured by a car bomb. In the southern city of Basra, British troops clashed for the second day with militia fighting for Muqtada al-Sadr. Three people were killed and two hurt. A soldier was wounded.

The hostage crisis and the deteriorating security situation added to the pressure on Mr Blair, who, according to leaked documents, was warned a year before the war to oust Saddam Hussein that there could be chaos after an invasion. The top-secret documents, published yesterday, also show the Bush administration was assured in March 2002 that the PM would support "regime change" in Iraq, and that Mr Blair was advised he would have to "wrongfoot" Saddam into providing an excuse to go to war.

Forced to respond yesterday, Mr Blair denied that he was "warned of chaos". A leaked memo from the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in fact warned that "it'simportant that we don't replace one dictator, Saddam Hussein, with another. I totally agree with that."

The Prime Minister added: "The idea that we did not have a plan for afterwards is simply not correct. We did and we have unfolded that plan, but there are people in Iraq who are determined to stop us."

On the kidnap of Mr Bigley, Mr Blair said: "We are monitoring the situation closely, we are doing everything we can." He refused to say any more "for the sake of the hostage".

The statement threatening the three men was made by the Tawhid and Jihad group, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom the US says is the top al-Qa'ida associate in Iraq. Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for many of the bloodiest attacks in Iraq, and in May it released video footage of the beheading of an American hostage, Nicholas Berg.

Mr Bigley, who comes from the Liverpool area, was seized on Thursday with his American fellow civilian contractors at the house they shared in a Baghdad suburb.

Mr Blair and Mr Allawi will meet today, and the Iraqi Prime Minister travels to Washington later this week. He has failed to deliver the security yearned for by Iraqis since the US occupation officially ended on 28 June. Instead, violence has got worse. American troops closed the airport road yesterday because insurgents had planted large bombs beside it. Last night, al-Jazeera showed a videotape of a militant Iraqi group holding 10 employees of a US-Turkish company. The kidnappers threatened to kill the men if their company did not withdraw from Iraq within three days.

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, said: "What comes through these documents ... is that the only reason for the war in Iraq was the Bush administration's obsession with regime change. They spell out bluntly ... that there was no evidence of a greater threat from Iraq and that there was no convincing evidence of a link with terrorism."

The other revelation, said Mr Cook, "is the frank advice of diplomats that there was no legal justification for the war, and therefore they should use the UN to 'wrongfoot' Saddam". The former chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was "cynically used in the hope that he would provide an excuse for war. In the event, he found no weapons."

He added that it was surprising that the documents had not been released to either the Hutton or Butler inquiries.

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