BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi officials on Wednesday publicly wrangled over releasing a high-profile female prisoner, raising questions about who’s in control of the country and whether Iraqi officials were bending to terrorist demands.

Also Wednesday, a man identifying himself as British hostage Kenneth Bigley was shown on a videotape posted on a Web site pleading for his life and asking British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene.

“I think this is possibly my last chance,” the man said. “I don’t want to die. I don’t deserve (it). Please free female prisoners held in Iraqi prisons.”

His captors have said they would kill him unless female Iraqi prisoners were released. Two Americans who were captured with him have already been killed.

Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi Justice Ministry officials said they would release scientist Rihab Rashid Taha on bail because she was no longer a threat to national security. Taha, who was No. 197 on the Americans’ most-wanted list, was known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq try to make biological weapons. She was captured in May 2003.

“I was told by my minister that she would be released. This was guaranteed,” said Nuri Abdul al Rahim Ibrahim, a Justice Ministry spokesman.

The Iraqi government also suggested that the other female prisoner, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as “Mrs. Anthrax,” would be released.

But by midday, the American officials said they had custody of Taha and Ammash and that the women wouldn’t be released soon.

By early evening, the head of Iraq’s national security agency said the prisoners were in the hands of the Iraqi government and might be released in the next two weeks. Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassim Dawoud said the only hurdles preventing the prisoners’ immediate release were formalities such as health examinations and a review of the security conditions at the prisoners’ private homes.

But interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was in New York early Wednesday, told The Associated Press that no decision had been made about releasing the prisoners, adding, “No release takes place unless I authorize it.”

The women haven’t been released; U.S. officials said they remain in their custody.

Since Allawi’s government came into power, U.S. officials have insisted that the interim government has control over national matters. In some cases, U.S. officials have claimed that they’re now playing only a supporting role, taking direction from the Iraqi government.

The confusion over the release of the prisoners “reinforces the idea that the Americans are in control,” said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who specializes on Iraq at the National Defense University. “It’s a win for the critics of the Iraqi government.”

A four-person commission has been reviewing the status of all 84 prisoners held by the United States for the last two months, according to American and Iraqi officials, to decide whether any should be released.

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The debate over the women’s release suggested that Iraqi officials may have been trying to spare the life of the third hostage held by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group. Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, and Bigley, 62, had been taken from their home last Thursday in Baghdad. The civil engineers worked as construction workers for Gulf Services Co.

Al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaida associate, had demanded the release of all of Iraq’s female inmates at the Abu Ghraib and Basra prisons or the hostages would be killed. But U.S. and Iraqi officials said that no women were being held at those two facilities.

Taha and Ammash are being held at an Iraqi detention center that houses “high-value prisoners,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, an Army spokesman for detainee operations in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad organization announced Monday that it had killed Armstrong. An hour later, it released a gruesome video showing his beheading. On Tuesday, the group said it killed Hensley; it released a videotape of the killing Wednesday. Iraqi officials found his body Wednesday, on what would have been Hensley’s 49th birthday.

Iraqi national security adviser Dawoud denied that the planned prisoner release was a response to al-Zarqawi’s demands, saying that it would be at least several days before the women were freed – well past Tawhid and Jihad’s deadline.

“You know we have sympathy for the British hostage, for the family and the British people … but I’m afraid we have to stand strongly,” said Dawoud, who characterized the coming release as part of a normal prisoner-review process.

Yaphe said the appearance of meeting a terrorist demand – whether intentional or not – would lead to more kidnappings.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, fighting in Sadr City killed 10 Iraqis and injured another 92. U.S. officials said American troops launched attacks there in an effort to take control of the Baghdad district from insurgents.

A car bomb killed at least six and injured nearly 60 at an Iraqi military recruiting center on al Rabea Street in western Baghdad. Human remains and blood, burnt cars and shattered glass covered the area.

U.S. officials also announced Wednesday that two soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division have been charged in connection with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis.

“Sgt. Michael P. Williams and Spc. Brent W. May, members of Company C, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, Fort Riley, Kansas, have both been charged with premeditated murder. Williams was also charged with obstruction of justice and making a false official statement,” the military statement said.

The military refused to release further details about the charges, saying the investigation was ongoing.



(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Patrick Kerkstra and special correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 0922 Baghdad blast, and 20040922 Iraq hostages

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

AP-NY-09-22-04 1824EDT


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