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Thursday, September 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

U.S. rules out meeting hostage-takers' demands

By Chicago Tribune and Knight Ridder Newspapers

Rihab Rashid Taha, an Iraqi woman in U.S. custody
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BAGHDAD, Iraq — With the fate of a British hostage in the hands of a murderous group of Islamic radicals, Iraqi and U.S. officials denied yesterday that they were about to free a female prisoner whose release the kidnappers have demanded.

Contradicting an announcement from his government in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said no decision was made to free Rihab Rashid Taha or another female scientist accused of playing key roles in Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

Allawi rejected suggestions that the Iraqi government was bowing to Tawhid and Jihad, a group linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks throughout Iraq. The group, which slaughtered two U.S. contractors this week, has threatened to behead a British hostage unless U.S.-led occupation forces release female Iraqi prisoners.

"We have not been negotiating, and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages," Allawi told The Associated Press in Washington, where he is to meet with President Bush today. "Really, my heart goes out for the victims of terrorism, and their families and we are trying to do our best to ensure the release of them."

Conflicting statements over the female prisoners suggested there might be disagreements within Allawi's interim government, or possibly between Iraqi and U.S. authorities, on how to proceed in the face of the hostage crises.

At the same time, Allawi and the U.S.-led coalition are under increasing pressure to suppress the guerrilla and terrorist attacks that are devastating Iraq.

The hostage-takings and beheadings have provided the most disturbing images from the recent spike in violence.

Eugene Armstrong, 52, was killed Monday, and his butchering was videotaped and posted on the Internet. Jack Hensley, 48, like Armstrong a U.S. contractor working for Gulf Services of the United Arab Emirates, was killed Tuesday, and a tape of that slaying appeared on the same Islamic Web site yesterday.

Armstrong's remains were found in Baghdad on Tuesday, and Hensley's yesterday.
Also yesterday, a man identifying himself as British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was captured with the Americans, was shown on a videotape posted on a Web site pleading for his life and asking British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene.

"I think this is possibly my last chance," the man said. "I don't want to die. I don't deserve [it]. Please free female prisoners held in Iraqi prisons."

In a Web statement repeating its demand that all Iraqi women prisoners be released, the al-Zarqawi group vowed again to kill Bigley, but it did not set a deadline, as it did for Armstrong, a Michigan native, and Hensley, of Marietta, Ga.

Al-Zarqawi's decision to demand the release of Muslim women played into the Iraqi public's resentment over U.S. detention policies. The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison offended many Iraqis and fueled rumors that U.S. military personnel were sexually abusing Muslim women in jail cells across the country.

The U.S. military says it has only two Iraqi women in custody: Taha, who was dubbed "Dr. Germ" for her role in Iraq's anthrax program; and biotechnology expert Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who became known as "Mrs. Anthrax."

Iraqi Justice Ministry officials said they would release Taha on bail because she was no longer a threat to national security. She was captured in May 2003.

"I was told by my minister that she would be released. This was guaranteed," said Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim, a Justice Ministry spokesman.

The Iraqi government also suggested that Ammash would be released.

But by midday, the U.S. officials said they had custody of Taha and Ammash and that the women wouldn't be released soon.

By evening, the head of Iraq's national-security agency said the prisoners were in the hands of the Iraqi government and might be released in the next two weeks. Iraqi national-security adviser Qassim Daoud said the only hurdles preventing the prisoners' immediate release were formalities such as health examinations and a review of the security conditions at the prisoners' homes. But Allawi told The Associated Press that no decision had been made about releasing the prisoners, adding, "No release takes place unless I authorize it."

Since Allawi's government came into power, U.S. officials have insisted that the interim government has control over national matters. In some cases, U.S. officials have claimed they're playing only a supporting role, taking direction from the Iraqi government.

The confusion over the release of the prisoners "reinforces the idea that the Americans are in control," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who specializes on Iraq at the National Defense University. A four-person commission has been reviewing for the past two months the status of all 84 prisoners held by the United States, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, to decide whether any should be released.

Also yesterday, The Associated Press reported that an Internet statement purportedly by a group that claimed to have kidnapped two Italian aid workers in Iraq said it had killed the women.

The posting could not be verified. Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were seized Sept. 7.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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