• Kyodo


The chairman of the Islamic Clerics Association said Tuesday he hopes the three Japanese hostages in Iraq will be released soon, and claimed they have not been freed because the hostage-takers are worried about their own safety.

In his first interview with Japanese media since the hostage-taking incident surfaced last week, Haarith al-Thari told Kyodo News the association has issued a religious decree urging the captors to free the hostages because the clerics saw the families’ pleas for their release on satellite television.

“I would like to affirm and assure their families that they are still alive,” al-Thari said. “I hope that they will be released soon.”

The clerics association was formed after the U.S.-led war in Iraq to spread links among Sunni Muslims.

The kidnappers, who call themselves Saraya al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Brigades), have not released the three despite saying Saturday night they would free the hostages in 24 hours in response to the call by the clerics association.

“The kidnappers are afraid that they will be discovered and captured when they release the hostages,” al-Thari said. “Maybe they are thinking about the best way to deliver (the) hostages to a safer place” without being arrested.

But the chief cleric also said he does not know exactly where the hostages are being held and vowed to try to negotiate if he knew the location.

He added that the group took the hostages for political purposes and not for money.

“We hope (the) Japanese people will press their government to retreat (from) their policy, which supports the aggression and occupation of Iraq,” al-Thari said.

Protest in Samawah

SAMAWAH, Iraq (Kyodo) About 300 Iraqis, including supporters of Shiite hardliner cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, staged a protest rally here Wednesday, demanding the pullout of Japanese troops.

It is the first such rally against the Self-Defense Forces, which have been deployed to Samawah since January to help with reconstruction efforts.

The rally was primarily aimed at protesting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The demonstrators, mainly students, marched around an office of al-Sadr supporters holding portraits of the cleric. The location is close to the Al-Muthanna Province office.

They said it is impossible for them to distinguish between the SDF troops and the occupation forces, and Japan should pull its troops out of Iraq.

More than 500 Ground Self-Defense Force troops are in Samawah for reconstruction work and have been supplying clean water to locals and building roads.