A British hostage threatened with death by a militant Islamic group appealed to Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday to save his life by ordering the release of all women held in Iraqi prisons.
"I think this is possibly my last chance to speak to somebody who will listen. . . . I don't want to die in Iraq. I don't deserve that," Kenneth Bigley, a contractor abducted with two American colleagues last week, said on a video posted on the Internet.
Bigley's plea was released at the end of a day in which Iraqi government officials issued a string of conflicting statements about the release of one prominent female detainee, Rihab Taha, a biological scientist nicknamed "Dr. Germ" by U.N. weapons inspectors. Early on Wednesday, a spokesman for Iraq's Justice Ministry said Taha would be released on bail soon. Later in the day, Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, said during a trip to the United States that there were no immediate plans to free her.
U.S. officials in Iraq described a more nuanced process, one not likely to satisfy Bigley's captors. Although a U.S. military commission has recommended that Taha be released on bail, U.S. officials said the recommendation is not connected to the kidnapping and that the proposed release is not imminent because it still needs approval from senior military leaders. The officials said there were no plans to release the other Iraqi woman in U.S. custody, nor was the Iraqi government willing to release women held in Iraqi-run prisons.
Bigley, 62, is one of a handful of foreigners being held hostage in Iraq, apparently by a variety of insurgent groups. Early Wednesday morning, a statement by a group claiming to hold two Italian women said the pair had been killed. But in Rome, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it had no new information regarding the fates of Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29-year-old aid workers who were abducted in Baghdad on Sept. 7.
A senior Italian intelligence official, who spoke on condition on anonymity, said "we do not know" whether the claim that the women had been killed was true. He pointed out that the statement was posted on an Internet site not commonly used by Islamic groups that have carried out kidnappings in Iraq and that the name of the group that posted it differed slightly from the one that first asserted responsibility for the abductions.
Two French journalists kidnapped on a road south of Baghdad on Aug. 19 are believed to still be in captivity.
Bigley's kidnappers -- a group run by a Jordanian-born militant, Abu Musab Zarqawi -- have already beheaded his two American colleagues, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley. The captors posted a statement on the Internet Tuesday night asserting that Hensley had been killed, and Hensley's decapitated body was recovered in Baghdad on Wednesday, wrapped in a plastic bag.
Bigley, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and seated in front of a black banner, entreated Blair to "please, please, release the female prisoners that are held in Iraqi prisons. Please help them. I need you to help me, Mr. Blair, because you are the only person now on God's Earth that I can speak to. Please, please help me see my wife, who cannot go on without me."
Meanwhile, news services reported that Abu Anas Shami, an Islamic cleric identified as the spiritual leader of Zarqawi's group, had been killed last week in a U.S. airstrike west of Baghdad. The reports, which cited Jordanian news media and Iraqi clerical sources, could not be independently verified.
The wave of violence that has swept Iraq in the past two weeks continued apace on Wednesday, as bombings and battles across the country claimed more than two dozen lives and left more than 150 people wounded.
In the most serious bombing, a suicide attacker blew up a car rigged with explosives outside an ice cream shop in western Baghdad where Iraqi National Guard recruits were standing. Authorities said 11 recruits were killed and more than 50 wounded in the attack, the latest in a string of deadly assaults by insurgents on Iraqi security forces and recruits.
Another suicide car bombing, in the affluent Baghdad district of Mansour, wounded four U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis.
The U.S. military announced that three American soldiers were killed on Wednesday: one in a bomb attack in the capital; another by a roadside bomb south of Tikrit; and the third from wounds suffered in an attack on a patrol in the northern city of Mosul.
In Sadr City, the vast Baghdad slum that is a stronghold of Moqtada Sadr, U.S. forces fought running battles with militiamen loyal to the rebellious Shiite cleric. The fighting became so pitched that ground commanders summoned fighter jets and tanks to target concentrations of militiamen. Hospital officials said 17 Iraqis were killed and 102 were wounded in the fighting.
Zarqawi's group, Monotheism and Jihad, has demanded that all women be freed from the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad and another U.S.-run detention facility near the southern port city of Basra. U.S. officials have said that they are holding only two Iraqi women: Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biological scientist dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax" by the U.N. inspectors. The other women in custody are being held by the Iraqi government in Iraqi-run jails.
Early Wednesday, a Justice Ministry spokesman, Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim, announced that "Iraqi authorities have agreed with coalition forces to conditionally release Rihab Rashid Taha on bail." His statement fueled optimism among Bigley's family that the hostage might escape the fate of his American colleagues.
Later in the day, Iraq's national security adviser and a state minister, Qasim Dawood, said that Iraqi judges had ordered the conditional release of three prisoners in U.S. custody, including one of the two women, presumably Taha. Dawood said at a news conference that the release would be conditional and would not happen "today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow."
"Iraqi judges decided to release them because they didn't have any evidence," he said.
But after Dawood's news conference, Allawi said in an interview with the Associated Press in New York that no decision had been made to free any prisoners. "We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages," Allawi said. "No release takes place unless I authorize it."
U.S. officials said all three Iraqi officials, including Allawi, were misinformed. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that the women remained in the "legal and physical custody" of the United States. Another U.S. official said the final decision on whether to release the women -- or any other detainees in U.S. custody -- rests with the U.S. military, not with Allawi or Iraqi judges.
Although the United States has transferred legal custody of a dozen detainees, including former president Saddam Hussein and senior members of his administration, to the interim Iraqi government, there are still 85 detainees in U.S. military custody in Iraq considered "high-value," said a U.S. official familiar with detention issues who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In mid-July, U.S. and Iraqi officials began a special review process to determine whether some of those detainees could be released, the official said. The initial screening involved the U.S. military, the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, the official said.
The official said the process identified 14 individuals who could be released without posing a continuing threat. Taha was among them.
The recommendations were given to the prime minister's office and the Iraqi Justice Ministry last week for review, the official said. This week, the official said, the interim Iraqi government concurred with the recommendations to release the 14 detainees on the grounds that they did not pose a continuing threat, the official said.
The official said recommendations still need to be approved by the Pentagon and by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the overall U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Correspondent Daniel Williams in Cairo and staff writer Steve Fainaru and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Khalid Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.