08/09/2004, 00.00
IRAQ
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Hostage situation still critical as Iraq becomes increasingly dangerous

Interim government reintroduces the death penalty.

Baghdad (AsiaNews/AP) – Attempts to free three Indian lorry drivers held hostage in Iraq seem increasingly futile. "We have withdrawn from negotiating for their release," said Rana Abu-Zaineh, spokesperson for Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport (KGL), the company for which drivers Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh and Antaryami worked.

The decision came after the company learnt that Sheik Hisham al-Duleimi, the tribal leader purportedly negotiating on its behalf, was not "officially entrusted by the captors" to represent them.

Al-Duleimi acknowledged he had no direct contact with the "Islamic Secret Army -Black Banners holders", the militant group holding three Indian, three Kenyan, and one Egyptian drivers. He said he was relying on the media to get the kidnappers to spare the hostages' lives.

In their initial demands the terrorists insisted the Kuwaiti company pull out of Iraq. They then demanded compensation for the victims of a US operation in Fallujah and the release of Iraqi detainees. Meantime, on July 31 the Indian government sent a diplomat, Talmiz Ahmad, to negotiate the release of the captive Indians.

Kidnapping has not abated. About 60 people are still in the hands of a number of groups. The hostages have different backgrounds: some are civilian, others are military; some work for big companies, some are diplomats; some have been freed but at least 6 are known to have been killed (4 by decapitation). And they belong to different religions including Islam.

On Sunday August 8, a group calling itself the "Islamic Army in Iraq" claimed to have seized the new Iranian consul in Karbala. Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the hostage was "live and well" and that his government was working for his release. Thus far the terrorists have not made any request or threat.

The security situation in Iraq is worsening. For the past five days, Shiite leader Mortada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia has been battling joint Iraqi and US troops in Najaf. Iyad Allawi, Iraq's Prime Minister, visited the city unannounced and ordered militiamen loyal to al-Sadr to lay down their weapons. The embattled Shiite cleric answered vowing to "fight until the last drop of blood."

In an attempt to end the violence, the interim government promised low-level criminals amnesty but brought back the death penalty for crimes like murder, kidnapping and drug dealing.

Capital punishment, which was regularly used under Saddam Hussein's rule, was suspended by the US after it occupied the country in April 2003.

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