By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 4 -- The Iraqi government on Tuesday urged some refugees not to go back to their homes yet, saying the country was unprepared to accommodate their return.
"The reality is that we cannot handle a huge influx of people," Abdul Samad al-Sultan, the minister of displacement and migration, said at a news conference to announce a joint plan with the United Nations to help returning Iraqis. "The refugees in some countries, we ask them to wait."
The acknowledgment came as the Iraqi cabinet asked the United Nations for what the government called a final one-year extension of authorization for U.S.-led forces to stay in Iraq. But in a newly released video, insurgents threatened to kill a British hostage unless the United Kingdom withdrew its forces.
In the video, aired Tuesday on al-Arabiya television, masked men holding assault rifles flanked one of five British citizens kidnapped from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May.
"Hello, my name is Jason and today is the 18th of November," said a man with a British accent who was seated on the ground wearing a tan jumpsuit. "I have been here now held for 173 days and I feel we have been forgotten."
The group, called the Shiite Islamic Resistance in Iraq, said it would kill the captive in 10 days unless British troops withdrew from Iraq, apologized to the Iraqi people and ended the presence of "fake companies and organizations" that "devour the body of Iraq and Iraqis."
"We condemn the publication of the video and we regard it as extremely unhelpful and distressing to the families," said Mark Bell, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Baghdad.
British officials declined to identify the men, a computer instructor and four bodyguards, or comment further about the kidnapping, saying further publicity would jeopardize behind-the-scenes work to secure their release.
But Iraqi officials said U.S. and British troops needed to remain in Iraq, and the cabinet voted to ask the United Nations to authorize the U.S.-led forces to remain in the country until the end of next year, according to government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
"The renewal of this mandate will protect Iraq," said Dabbagh, who added that the cabinet vote did not need ratification by parliament. "There was really almost no discussion about it by the cabinet."
Also Tuesday, in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, an Arab political bloc ended its year-long boycott of the provincial council, a step toward reconciliation sought by U.S. officials. Members of the Iraqi Republican Gathering agreed to return to the council in exchange for Arabs receiving nearly a third of the positions in local government.
"This is a big achievement for Kirkuk and brotherhood and peaceful living together," said Razgar ali Hamajan, a Kurd who is head of the Kirkuk provincial council.
The U.S. military announced that a U.S. soldier was killed by an explosion Monday in Anbar province. Two other service members were reported wounded.
Meanwhile in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Iraqi and U.N. officials launched a program to assist about 30,000 refugees and internally displaced people, or IDPs, by giving them support packages and repair kits. The aid will be delivered by the United Nations, which will support the program with an initial contribution of $11 million.
The world body estimates that 40,000 refugees and 10,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes, primarily in the Baghdad area. But it said it was "not encouraging or promoting the return of refugees or IDPs."
Sultan, the minister of displacement and migration, said the Iraqi government has allocated $100 million to help returning families and an additional $10 million to provide food for them.
Special correspondents Dalya Hassan and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.