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Iraqi Mediator Hopes for Hostage Release as Two More Taken - 2004-07-31


The Arabic television channel al-Jazeera says two Turkish truck drivers have been kidnapped in Iraq by followers of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Meanwhile, an Iraqi mediator negotiating the release of seven other foreign hostages says he is confident that they will be released. The kidnappers threatened to start killing the men if no progress was made by a Saturday night deadline, but the deadline passed with no news.

Squeaky ceiling fans struggle to keep the room cool in the sweltering Iraqi summer as an assistant hands Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaymi a letter that has just been faxed from Kuwait.

The company employing seven abducted truck drivers has sent a representative to negotiate for their release, and this letter is his credential. The sheikh is pleased.

He said that the negotiations will make some progress now. They have sent someone to represent them. His name is Mehdi Saleh. Seven employees are being held, and the kidnappers have made demands of the company.

Scores of people have been kidnapped in Iraq over the last several months, most of them civilian employees of companies doing reconstruction work. At least eight victims have been killed, four by beheading. Many different groups have claimed responsibility for the abductions. The motive is sometimes political, sometimes financial.

In this case, the victims are three Indian citizens, three Kenyans and an Egyptian. Their abductors, a group calling itself the Holders of the Black Banners, threatened to start killing them Friday night if negotiations did not start. They then pushed back the deadline till Saturday.

The kidnappers snatched the truck drivers on July 21. They have demanded that the Kuwaiti company withdraw from Iraq, and they are also reported to want the firm to pay financial compensation to victims of fighting and airstrikes in Fallujah.

Sheikh al-Dulaymi denies having any direct contact with the kidnappers themselves.

He said that my contact with the kidnappers is through the channels, not personally. He says, I appeal to them to help those people, and they send their messages through these channels. I have no direct contact with them.

Sheikh al-Dulaymi heads two organizations, a grouping of Iraqi tribes and one called the Association of Victims of the American Occupation. On the wall of the reception room is a white cloth banner painted with an image from one of the infamous photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

He feels those two positions give him credibility as a mediator. But said that he disagrees with the kidnapping tactic.

He added that he is mediating the crisis because he wants to secure the release of innocent people because, "I consider this a humanitarian issue."

The kidnappings have sparked angry demonstrations in India and Kenya, neither of which has troops in Iraq. The Indian government has dispatched a senior Arabic-speaking diplomat to Baghdad to help negotiate for the release of the three Indian victims.