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A two-man delegation of British Muslims appealed in Baghdad yesterday for Kenneth Bigley to be released. Musharaf Hussein of the Muslim Council said: "We believe in the power of prayer turning people’s hearts."
At a press conference, as well as pleading for the release of the British engineer, Mr Hussein and Daoud Abdullah said that British Muslims had always opposed the war in Iraq.
But as they were making their appeal, American aircraft assaulted the resistance stronghold of Fallujah for the third time in 24 hours, killing eight people and wounding 17, according to the local hospital. The US military said it was aiming to hit a meeting of 10 militants.
American generals were defensive about the number of civilian casualties inflicted by the bombing campaign and blamed the insurgents for operating in urban areas. They said they took great care not to kill civilians but were unable to explain the almost nightly television pictures of wounded women and children being taken from ruined houses. The latest "precision" strikes raised the toll in recent attacks to 15 killed and 30 wounded, many of whom are women and children according to doctors. The US military cast doubt on the accuracy of the doctors’ statements.
The British Muslim delegation saw a variety of Iraqi leaders, including President Ghazi al-Yawar. But they were unable to say how they hoped to establish contact with the kidnappers allegedly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Many of those who met the delegation are connected to the interim Iraqi government rather than the resistance.
The delegation delivered a letter from Yusuf Islam, formerly known as the singer Cat Stevens, asking for Mr Bigley to be released. It said: "As a member of the Muslim Council I request you in the name of Allah, the Rahman [Compassionate], to release the British citizen Ken Bigley for the good name of our religion and according to the sayings of Allah in the glorious Qur’an."
Mr Daoud said that Mr Bigley should be freed as a non-combatant just as the civilians killed in Fallujah by US air strikes were non-combatants. He said he did not know if Mr Bigley was alive or dead but would act as if he were alive.
The upsurge of violence continued across Iraq, with two suicide bombers blowing up their vehicles outside US and Iraqi bases at Karma, near Fallujah, wounding severalsoldiers.
In an ominous development, the Americans have arrested a commander of the Iraqi National Guard in Baquba, a bastion of rebellion. The military said Lieutenant General Talib al-Lahibi had been arrested on Thursday for associating with known members of the resistance. He commanded three battalions in Diyala province. Iraqi civil and military leaders in the Sunni Muslim heartlands where unrest is prevalent have difficulty surviving unless they have an understanding with the resistance.
A London-based Muslim activist who has good contacts with Islamist groups in Iraq said Mr Bigley was still alive. Yasser al-Serri, the director of the Islamic Observation Centre, said his group issued an appeal to Mr Bigley’s kidnappers through mediators in Iraq and received a reply that the Briton was still alive.
"We were told by the mediators today that the British hostage is still alive," he said. "We had sent an appeal to the kidnappers for the hostage’s release, and another Islamic group also sent an appeal, and the mediators said the appeals were being studied." The appeal, he said, urged the kidnappers to free Mr Bigley for the sake of his family and as a "clear message to the British people to see their government’s weakness and crime in not freeing prisoners held by coalition forces to spare their sons."
Mr Serri won a battle in 2002 against extradition to the US, which accuses him of funding al-Qa’ida. He was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian military tribunal in 1994 for trying to assassinate Atef Sedki, who was prime minister.