Sunnis appeal for release of four Christian humanitarian workers kidnapped in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prominent Sunni Arab clerics and residents of a Baghdad neighborhood where four kidnapped Christian humanitarian workers had aided people appealed Friday for their release a day before a deadline set by their abductors to kill them.Sunni Arab clerics also took the opportunity of Friday prayers to urge a big Sunni turnout in the Dec. 15 elections, saying that voting was a “religious duty” that could hasten the departure of American troops.Sporadic violence left four Iraqis dead, two just north of the capital and two in Baghdad on Friday, one day after a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a packed bus bound for the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah, killing 32 people and wounding 44.A U.S. military medical evacuation helicopter also made a “hard landing” in Tarmiyah 30 miles north of the capital. No one was injured.The Canadian Islamic Congress to Iraq sent an envoy, Ehab Lotayef, to try to win the release of the humanitarian workers who were abducted two weeks ago. They include an American, two Canadians and a Briton and a group known as the Swords of Righteousness has set a Saturday deadline, threatening to kill them unless U.S. and Iraqi authorities free all prisoners.A French aid worker and a German citizen are also being held by kidnappers.”We hope that they would be released as soon as possible because Christmas is approaching and I hope that they will be with their families by then. We hope that this regrettable story will have a happy end,” Lotayef said.During prayers in the al-Imam al-Aadam mosque in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in north Baghdad, cleric Ahmed Hassan Taha demanded that the four charity workers be released.”I stress on the necessity to release the four kidnapped foreigners who have helped the residents of Azamiyah,” he said. “We ask those who have authority and power to do their best to release the four European people who work in Christian peace organization, in fact those activists were the first who condemned the war on Iraq.”Residents gathered outside the mosque, also known as Abu Hanifa, and held aloft banners demanding their release.”The people of Azamiyah will not forget the honest positions peacemakers,” read one. Another said, “We demand the release of the abducted peacemakers.”A spokesman for the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, Abdel-Salam al-Qubaisi, said he hoped that the kidnappers were insurgents and not something else – an allusion kidnap-for-ransom gangs. The association is thought to have links to some groups in the Sunni-led insurgency,”I hope that the hostages are in the hands of people who reject the occupation,” he told a news conference. “I think that those abducted are doves of peace who reject that the occupation, they must be rewarded not imprisoned.”Meanwhile, a statement posted on the Internet in the name of the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed to have killed an American hostage. The statement Thursday did not name him or provide photos, but the group earlier identified its captive as Ronald Alan Schulz and threatened to kill him unless all prisoners in Iraq were released.U.S. and Iraqi officials have predicted a surge in insurgent attacks ahead of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. U.S. officials hope a large turnout, especially among Sunni Arabs, will help deflate the insurgency and lead to a reduction of American forces next year.A Sunni cleric from the Association of Muslim Scholars told worshippers at Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque that a large turnout from the community was important. The association is thought to have links to some groups in the Sunni-led insurgency, which had asked the minority to boycott last January’s elections.”The date of Dec. 15 is landmark event. It is a decisive battle that will determine our future. If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the occupation will continue and the country would be lost. Participation in the elections is a must and it is a religious duty,” he said.Police in Baghdad said a roadside bomb in the southern Dora neighborhood killed a police officer while another explosive in western Saydiyah missed a U.S. military patrol and killed an Iraqi passer-by. Unidentified gunmen also shot and killed two brothers in Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad.In Bulgaria, meanwhile, the defense minister said his country will “most likely” continue its military involvement in Iraq by sending in a 120-member non-combat unit to guard the Ashraf refugee camp.The government will make a final decision after “the necessary coordination talks,” Defense Minister Veselin Bliznakov told reporters upon his return from Washington.In May, parliament voted to cut the number of troops in Iraq from 460 to 400 and to continue their mission through the end of 2005. Officials have said Bulgaria will start a pullout after next week’s parliamentary elections in Iraq.