Senior UK Muslims fly to Baghdad to plead for Bigley

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The Independent Online

A delegation of senior British Muslims will fly to Baghdad this weekend to meet Sunni clerics with links to Iraqi militants to plead for the life of the British hostage Kenneth Bigley.

The Muslim Council of Britain said last night that it was sending a senior official and a high-ranking cleric to hold talks with their Iraqi colleagues over the hostage crisis.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the MCB, said: "We appeal to the group that is holding Ken Bigley to release him without delay and without harm. He is an elderly man and he is due to become a grandfather soon.

"Be merciful. Our religion Islam does not allow us to harm the innocent ... This is also the message which the delegation will be carrying to Baghdad."

The delegation will consist of Dr Daud Abdullah, assistant secretary general of the group, and Dr Musharraf Hussain, a senior cleric based at Nottingham's Karimia Institute.

The council, which has strongly condemned the kidnapping and the murder of Mr Bigley's two American colleagues, said it expected the delegation to meet members of the Association of Muslim Clerics in Baghdad.

The group of senior Sunni clerics has helped in the past with the freeing of captives held by extremist groups.

The move came as the family of Mr Bigley, entering the ninth day of their ordeal, took their efforts to secure his release directly to ordinary Iraqis yesterday, when 50,000 leaflets appealing for help were distributed on the streets of Baghdad. The pamphlet drop, organised by officials at the British embassy, took place in the western part of the city where Mr Bigley and his two American colleagues were kidnapped last week.

Paul Bigley, the brother of Ken Bigley, said he believed the appeals being made directly to Iraqis and the kidnappers, led by the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were yielding results.

He told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "I am absolutely convinced that the people who are holding Ken have had sight of my messages.

"They know only too well what commotion we've caused worldwide ... This is part of the strategy to give them a bit of what they want, if that's buying time for several other people in the world to get their act into gear."

The pamphlet, written by Ken Bigley's family, indicates that the authorities believe the remaining hostage, who has been shown on a video begging for his life after the two Americans were beheaded, may still be in the part of the city where he was seized eight days ago.

Written in Arabic and carrying a picture of a smiling Mr Bigley, the leaflets say: "This is a personal appeal from a family whose son is missing. A family man called Ken Bigley is being held somewhere in your community.

"We are Ken's family. Ken's mother, brothers, wife and child love him dearly. We are appealing for your help. We appeal to those who have taken him to return Ken to us."

Printed on sheets of plain white paper without any official insignia, the pamphlets carry a phone number linked to a hotline operated by Iraqi police.

Sources said there was a "distinct possibility" that Mr Bigley was still being held in west Baghdad but there was no intelligence to indicate a specific location in the sprawling area of the city.

The leaflet came as the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reiterated that the Government was doing all it could to secure Mr Bigley's release - but insisted once more that there would be no negotiations with Tawhid and Jihad, the group holding the Briton.

But the political pressure on Tony Blair was further increased when the former transport secretary Stephen Byers made comments implying that the hostage crisis was a test of the Prime Minister's religious faith.

Speaking on the ITV News channel, Mr Byers said: "He is a very Christian person, a very religious man and he will be wondering just where God is at this time because this is something awful that is taking place.

"So he'll deal with it at a personal level but also he's got to deal with it as the leader of our country and those two are often very difficult to reconcile," Mr Byers said.

In separate remarks, Michael Berg, the father of the young American Nick Berg behead by Zarqawi's group in May, accused the Prime Minister of being immoral. Mr Berg said: "I think it is immoral for Mr Blair to stand there and say there is nothing he can do about it, when in fact there is.

"He certainly can't control George Bush but he can withdraw British troops from Iraq."

In a further initiative, an Irish politician offered to travel to Iraq in an effort to free the Briton, citing the Irish roots of Mr Bigley's mother, Lil.

Michael Higgins, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, told the al-Jazeera satellite news channel that "nothing could be solved by the taking of his life and ... the Irish had not supported the war [in Iraq]."

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