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Iraqi, Italian Leaders Discuss Hostage Crisis - 2004-09-10

Iraq's interim president held talks with the Italian prime minister in Rome Friday, as Italy is working on several fronts to try to secure the release of two Italian aid workers taken hostage in Baghdad. Demonstrations to call for their release are being held all over Italy.

The Iraqi interim president Ghazi al-Yawer arrived at the prime minister's office in Rome amid tight security for a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A statement issued by the prime minister's office says the two leaders discussed the missing aid workers and President al-Yawer condemned their kidnapping, calling such incidents "barbaric." The statement also says the Italian government will continue to help the Iraqi people achieve full freedom.

The Iraqi leader is on a European tour to seek support for reconstruction aid and debt reduction. Mr. Al-Yawer and his government took office on June 30 when the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority was disbanded.

Mr. Al-Yawer arrived in the Italian capital on the same day thousands of people were preparing for a candlelight demonstration along the streets of Rome to demand the release of two women aid workers kidnapped in Baghdad earlier this week.

Italy was shocked by the kidnappings of the aid workers employed by the non-governmental organization "Bridge To Baghdad". They were seized by a group of armed militants from their offices in the center of the city.

In comments made to an Italian daily, Mr. Al-Yawer said his government will do everything possible to help free the women.

A previously unknown group calling itself "Supporters of al-Zawahiri posted a statement on the Internet Friday claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, and giving Italy 24 hours to obtain the release of all Muslim women held in Iraqi prisons. The group said if that happens, it will provide more information about the abducted aid workers.

The statement's origin could not be verified, and according to Prime Minister Berlusconi's office, the visiting Iraqi president expressed skepticism about its authenticity.

The spokesman for Milan's Islamic Institute also said the ultimatum did not seem credible.

Before the latest kidnapping of the two Italian women, five other Italians had already been taken hostage in Iraq. To the horror of the entire Italian nation two of them were killed by their captors.

Despite strong opposition by the Italian population, the Rome government supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq from the beginning. Prime Minister Berlusconi did not send any troops into the country during the war, but deployed 3,000 troops after the war to help in reconstruction efforts.

Italy has the coalition's third-largest contingent in Iraq, and no plans to withdraw its troops. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has made clear that the government will not change its stance towards Iraq in spite of the kidnappings.