Kidnappers of French hostages 'demand end to headscarf ban'

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The Independent Online

Two French journalists in Iraq have been kidnapped by Islamic militants who say they are protesting against the French government's ban on wearing the hijab in schools.

Two French journalists in Iraq have been kidnapped by Islamic militants who say they are protesting against the French government's ban on wearing the hijab in schools.

Al-Jazeera broadcast footage yesterday of Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and RTL radio. The pair have not contacted their news organisations since 19 August and were last sighted about 20 miles outside Baghdad, on the road to Najaf.

The group purporting to be holding the pair calls itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. It was reported to be the same group that abducted and killed the freelance Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, 56, this week.

On the tape, the militants described the French law banning the wearing of Islamic headdresses as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms".

Al-Jazeera reported the group saying it was giving the French government 48 hours to overturn the law, without mentioning any ultimatum.

RTL's editorial director, Jacques Esnous, said: "We saw [on the video] that they are in good health, but we also saw that they have an appalling sword of Damocles hanging above them. The terrible decision rests with the government. It's a choice between democracy and fanaticism, and until now democratic governments have never conceded to fanatics ... That is why we are terribly worried."

It also emerged yesterday that US forces will remain in Najaf until Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, judges that control of the city can safely be handed over in its entirety to the Iraqi police and security forces.

While the formula promoted by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for ending three bloody weeks of fighting in Najaf provides for the withdrawal of foreign forces, US Marines and cavalry would keep their tanks, armoured vehicles and troops in defensive positions until Iraqi security forces are fully ready to take over, US officials said.

As Najaf limped back to life after the withdrawal from its ancient centre by armed insurgents loyal to the militant Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a senior American military source said he thought it would be a matter of "days rather than weeks". US officials were claiming that the end to the fighting was a "tactical victory" over Sadr.

Iraqi security forces have already significantly tightened their control of the city, entering the Imam Ali shrine compound for the first time since the fighting began. In neighbouring Kufa, which until Thursday night was fully in the control of the Mehdi Army, the insurgent checkpoints and patrols had yesterday been replaced by a heavy presence of the Iraqi Intervention force and national guardsmen. The Mehdi militia has ended an occupation of the main mosque which began last spring.

Stung by media coverage suggesting that the ultimatum from the Ayatollah, Shia Iraq's most venerated cleric, to Sadr to end his occupation of the holy sites of the two cities had enhanced his authority at the expense of Mr Allawi's authtority, US officials yesterday insisted that their had been a "congruence" between Ayatollah Sistani's views of the conflict and that of the interim government. The officials said the Ayatollah had always wanted the Allawi government to act to provide security.

A senior US diplomatic source played down speculation that the Ayatollah's formula had been devised with US and British officials while he was in London for medical treatment during the three-week battle for Najaf. He said there had been "surprisingly little" contact between the cleric and the US. The British embassy in Baghdad said the Foreign Office's only role had been to arrange a visa for the Ayatollah.

While acknowledging Sadr's continued importance as a political player and his appeal to poor, disaffected Shia youth - as well as the fact that Thursday night's agreement only applies to Najaf and Kufa - US officials suggested that his standing among his own most militant supporters could have been diminished by having to issue a written command to his gunmen to withdraw. An American official said: "He now has to choose whether to buy into the political process or to try to work against the process."

On Friday, Mehdi Army gunmen tried to put a brave face on the order from Sadr to leave the holy sites, reluctant to rule out resuming the conflict at some future date. In the alleyway leading to the shrine from Medan Square - just before a mercifully short-lived ceasefire-breaking exchange of fire between police and insurgents - one militant, Radh Hatif, 31, said of the agreement: "If it works, great. If it doesn't, we are ready to fight again ... If the Americans want to escalate it, we are ready." In an overt, and rare, criticism of Ayatollah Sistani,Mr Hatif added: "He will be trusted as the leader if he acts alone without the Americans and the Allawi government behind him. Otherwise he is like a robot."

Pressed on another clause in the Ayatollah's formula, compensation for the devastation wrought in Najaf by the fighting, US officials said a "needs assessment" would be conducted in the next few weeks. Exchanges of prisoners are also under way after Sadr militants secured the release of a top aide to the cleric, Ali Smeissm, on Friday - in exchange for the kidnapped relative of the Defence Minister, according to Ahmed al-Shabani, another Sadr aide.