Islamic militants who had threatened to behead a kidnapped Indian driver Friday let their deadline slip after the driver's employer reportedly agreed to meet with an Iraqi mediator Saturday. In India, meanwhile, angry protesters in the driver's native region blocked a highway and briefly detained a busload of foreign tourists.
The drama surrounding the kidnapping of the Indian and six other foreign drivers for a Kuwaiti company intensified as a videotape of the masked militants pointing a gun at the frightened, huddled man was repeatedly aired in Iraq and India.
An Iraqi tribal sheik who has been acting as a mediator in the kidnapping told news agencies in Baghdad that he planned to meet with the drivers' employers Saturday and expected a "positive outcome." The militants, a group calling itself the Hoisters of the Black Flags, had threatened to start killing the hostages Friday unless the Kuwaiti firm withdrew all its foreign workers from Iraq.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, political fallout continued over the slayings in Iraq of two kidnapped Pakistani workers on Wednesday. Pakistani political leaders and analysts said public outrage could prevent the government from sending troops to Iraq as part of the multinational force.
"There is a great deal of anger at the government for having allowed this to happen. You might say there is a Philippine-like syndrome, because there are millions of Pakistanis who work in jobs all over the Middle East," Aitzaz Ahsan, a Pakistani lawmaker, said in a telephone interview from Islamabad.
Kidnappings by Islamic militants here accelerated after a decision by the Philippine government last week to withdraw its 51 troops from Iraq after a group threatened to kill an abducted Filipino driver. The man was released unharmed, but the capitulation by Philippines officials aroused international criticism and warnings of copycat crimes by emboldened terrorists.
The spreading contretemps comes as officials in Saudi Arabia, with strong support from the Iraqi government and encouragement from the Bush administration, have proposed forming a military force from Muslim countries that would supplement and eventually replace the U.S.-dominated foreign force in Iraq.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has promoted the idea of such a force this past week during a tour of several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. Iraqi and Saudi officials have stressed that the force would not include troops from Iraq's immediate neighbors -- who are widely distrusted by the Iraqi public -- but would rely on more-distant Muslim nations such as Pakistan and Indonesia.
In a brief visit to Baghdad, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell vowed that terrorists and kidnappers would not be allowed to drag Iraq back into its violent past. He also urged foreign companies working and investing in Iraq not to be deterred by the abductions and threats. In most cases, the kidnappers have demanded that foreign governments and private firms withdraw from the country, accusing them of collaborating with American occupiers.
The surge in violence and threats has also coincided with repeated postponements of a national political conference, which is now scheduled to begin Aug. 15. The setbacks have raised fears that Iraqi elections planned for next year may also be delayed and that the entire framework of the country's progress toward democracy, as established in June by outgoing U.S. occupation officials, will be weakened.
But Iraqi and U.N. officials here said the delay was needed to ensure success for the conference, which is intended to bring together 1,000 Iraqis from across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum to discuss crucial national issues and choose a small legislative council that would oversee the interim administration. Preparations for the meeting have been marred by the refusal of some key groups to participate and by wrangling among others over coveted delegates' seats.
"In a country that has lived for decades under authoritarian rule, where politics was killed and where insurgency is continuing, it is very important for Iraqis to see they can come together under one big tent to discuss the challenges and to see that a peaceful political process is the best way forward," said Jamal bin Omar, a U.N. official who is advising conference organizers. "We thought a few extra days would help."
Omar and other officials said they were confident that within the next two weeks, groups who have rejected the conference could be persuaded to participate and disputes over delegate selection could be resolved. The officials said that many Iraqis were still not certain what the conference was about and that more time was needed to build popular support for it.
In interviews Friday, Baghdad residents expressed only a vague understanding of the conference and questioned whether it was intended to include only political elites.
"What is the purpose of this meeting? Is it for the officials, or is it for the people?" asked Uday Tariq, 25, who sells women's clothing in a shopping mall. "We don't know the first thing about it, and we don't understand why it has to be delayed. Everyone is asking the same questions."