BAGHDAD, Iraq - With the fate of a British hostage in the hands of Islamic radicals who beheaded two American contractors this week, U.S. and Iraqi officials denied yesterday that they were about to free a female prisoner whose release the kidnappers have demanded.
Contradicting an announcement from his government in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said that no decision had been made to free Rihab Rashid Taha or another female scientist accused of playing key roles in Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.
Allawi rejected suggestions that the Iraqi government was bowing to Tawhid and Jihad, a group linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks. The group, which killed two American contractors this week, has threatened to behead a British hostage unless U.S.-led occupation forces release female Iraqi prisoners.
"We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages," Allawi told the Associated Press in Washington, where he is to meet today with President Bush.
Conflicting statements over the female prisoners suggested that there might be disagreements within Allawi's interim government, or possibly between Iraqi and American authorities, on how to proceed in the face of the hostage crises.
At the same time, Allawi and the U.S.-led coalition are under increasing pressure to suppress the guerrilla attacks that are devastating Iraq.
A car bombing yesterday in a crowded Baghdad commercial district killed at least 11 people and wounded more than 60, Iraqi officials said. Other violence, including clashes between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, left 13 Iraqis dead.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed yesterday in separate incidents in northern Iraq. Four others were wounded by a suicide attack in Baghdad.
The hostage-takings and beheadings have provided the most disturbing images from the recent spate of violence.
Eugene Armstrong, 52, was killed Monday and a video of his death posted on an Islamic Web site. Jack Hensley, 48, like Armstrong an American contractor working for Gulf Services Co. of the United Arab Emirates, was killed Tuesday, and a videotape appeared on the same Web site yesterday.
Armstrong's remains were found Tuesday in Baghdad and Hensley's yesterday.
The family of British engineer Kenneth Bigley, 62, who was abducted last week with the two Americans from a Baghdad house, is waiting to learn his fate.
"We continue to do everything we can to secure Kenneth Bigley's safe release, but it would be idle to pretend that there's a great deal of hope," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly session. "We cannot get into a situation, and I believe the family understands this, where we start bargaining with terrorists and kidnappers."
In a statement posted on the Internet reiterating its demand that all female Iraqi prisoners be released, the al-Zarqawi group vowed again to kill Bigley but did not set a deadline, as it had for Armstrong and Hensley. The group also posted a video showing Bigley begging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene and save his life.
Al-Zarqawi's decision to demand the release of Muslim women played into the Iraqi public's resentment over U.S. detention policies. The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison offended many Iraqis and fueled rumors that U.S. soldiers were sexually abusing Muslim women in jail cells across the country.
The U.S. military says it has only two Iraqi women in custody: Taha, who was dubbed "Dr. Germ" for her role in Iraq's anthrax program; and biotechnology expert Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who became known as "Mrs. Anthrax."
A Justice Ministry official in Baghdad said Taha's release on bail had been in the works for some time and that she could be freed soon. But U.S. officials are determined to prevent any prisoner release that could be seen as a concession to terrorists.
"One thing we've learned over time is that you can't negotiate with these kinds of terrorists," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in New York.
Allawi said the final decision on any prisoner releases is his and that no decision had been made.
Tawhid and Jihad, or "One God and Holy War," has claimed responsibility for killing seven hostages, including American Nicholas Berg.
The clashes in Sadr City broke out as U.S. forces began a new offensive against Shiite radicals in the Baghdad slum. U.S. airstrikes and street fighting left at least 13 Iraqis dead, officials said. More than 100 people were wounded.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.