Hostage in Iraq begs for her life

British-Iraqi aid worker makes tearful plea on video

`These might be my last hours'

October 23, 2004|By Monte Morin and John Daniszewski | Monte Morin and John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD - Kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan pleaded for her life in a tearful videotape yesterday, saying she feared facing the same fate as British hostage Kenneth Bigley and others who have been beheaded by their captors.

The grainy video, aired on the Arabic-language television channel Al-Jazeera, increased pressure on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to pull his troops out of Iraq but also appeared to shake many Iraqis, who questioned how a 60-year-old foreigner who had opposed the American-led war and devoted half her life to improving the living conditions of ordinary Iraqis could be forced to beg for her life.

"Help me, please help me," said a haggard and fearful-looking Hassan, director of the CARE humanitarian group's Iraq office. "These might be my last hours. Please help me."

The anguished tape of Hassan marked an escalation in the level of terror that hostage-takers have been able to inflict on foreign civilians in Iraq. More than 30 male hostages have been slain since April, and seven women had previously been taken hostage, all of whom were freed.

Act is condemned

Hassan's abduction was condemned yesterday by Iraqis who said it could backfire for her unidentified assailants.

"If Margaret Hassan will be killed, it will be the last straw that will break the camel's back," said Hassan Jameel, a Baghdad University political science professor. "This abduction distorts not only the reputation of the resistance, but it distorts even the reputation of Islam. We don't accept this. We hope that these kidnappers will regain their sanity and release her immediately."

For Blair, the ordeal represents a political and moral dilemma. Having agonized over Bigley's predicament but having been unable to save him, Blair faces another crisis just as Britain agrees to a U.S. request to redeploy 850 troops from Iraq's relatively quiet south to an area of heavy fighting near Baghdad. The troop movement is intended to free U.S. troops for an offensive in Fallujah.

No sign of captors

It is unclear who abducted Hassan - no group has claimed responsibility, and in contrast with previous cases, no banners or armed, masked captors were visible on the video sent to Al-Jazeera.

In the case of Bigley's slaying Oct. 8, militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad claimed responsibility after the 62-year-old engineer was shown on video weeping and pleading for his life.

Hassan, an Arabic speaker and convert to Islam who is married to an Iraqi, was snatched by gunmen Tuesday as she drove to work. A driver and a companion were beaten and thrown into the street.

"I ask the British to help me," Hassan said in the video, as she stared into the camera from beneath dark bangs. "Ask Mr. Blair to withdraw the troops from Iraq and not bring them to Baghdad. This is the reason that people like me and Mr. Bigley are being kidnapped and may die. Please, I beg of you, I beg of you, please help me."

The British government declined yesterday to comment on Hassan's pleas. London has said it does not know who is holding her and has maintained that it will not give in to terrorists' demands. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern made a personal appeal for Hassan's release last night, noting that she was born in Ireland and has an Irish passport in addition to her Iraqi nationality.

"Margaret is a woman who has lived in Iraq for 32 years," Ahern said, according to the Press Association news agency. "She is a person who has selflessly worked for the benefit of her Iraqi fellow citizens and fought for the rights of the Iraqi people for many years."

The video was shocking even in a nation that has become inured to televised images of bloodshed and sorrow. "I cried when I saw this," said Layla Shawi, a Baghdad pharmacist. "She's only a woman. She has nothing to do with politics and does not work with the military. The people who do this are criminals. This is not real insurgency. This is not real resistance. This is a crime against humanity."

Hassan's wrenching appeal came on a day that U.S. forces battled insurgents on the outskirts of Fallujah as part of a series of strikes to subdue the rebel stronghold before national elections scheduled for January.

U.S. Marines reported that they were fired on with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns and battled insurgents for more than six hours. No Marines were reported injured, but hospital officials said five other people were dead and four wounded.

In the northern city of Mosul, American soldiers were injured in the bombings of two armored vehicles. The attacks followed a showdown between Iraqi national guardsman and insurgents outside a mosque that was suspected of harboring guerrillas, according to a U.S. Army official.

Also yesterday, Iraqi officials reported that three staff workers for Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer were killed and one was wounded in a Baghdad ambush.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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