October 22, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Margaret Hassan, the kidnapped director of CARE International in Iraq, wept and pleaded for Britain to act to save her life in a video aired Friday. "Please help me.
This might be my last hours," the gaunt Hassan begged, shaking with fear and burying her face in a tissue.
The wrenching appeal by Hassan puts new political pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair's government after it agreed to a U.S. request to redeploy troops to the Baghdad region to free up American forces for a new assault on insurgents.
Hassan, an Irish-British-Iraqi citizen who has been doing humanitarian work in Iraq for 30 years, pleaded with Britons to persuade Blair not to carry out the redeployment and warned she might meet the same fate as British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was beheaded by his captors.
No foreign women have been killed in the wave of kidnappings that has struck Iraq. More than 150 foreigners have been abducted, and at least 33 of those have been killed, but the women among them have been freed unharmed.
Unlike most hostage tapes released by insurgents, Hassan's showed no masked gunmen, no banners of the militant organization and no explicit demands for her release. Bigley's kidnappers had demanded that U.S. and Iraqi authorities free all women prisoners.
In the video, aired on Al-Jazeera television, Hassan stood alone in front of a bare wall, visible from the shoulders up, her eyes baggy and her face haggard.
"Please help me. Please help me," Hassan said, trembling. "This might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr. Blair to take the troops out of Iraq, and not to bring them here to Baghdad. That's why people like Mr. Bigley and myself are being caught. And maybe we will die like Mr. Bigley."
"Please, please, I beg of you," she said, then broke into tears and wept into the tissue.
Blair's Downing Street office had no immediate comment on the video.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of Hassan, the most prominent figure to be swept up in the kidnapping campaign. More than 150 foreigners have been abducted - with more than 33 killed.
She was born in Dublin and was naturalized as an Iraqi after marrying an Iraqi man and became widely known for her charity work in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, where she distributed food and medicines. But her kidnappers, who pulled her from her car in the Iraqi capital, have pointed specifically to her British citizenship.
Friday's video portended another agonizing hostage drama for Britain. Bigley's captors - said to be followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - dragged out his fate in an apparent attempt to undermine Blair.
Bigley was kidnapped on Sept. 16 along with two Americans, who were beheaded within days after deadlines passed.
But the kidnappers put no deadline for Bigley's death and instead over several weeks released two videos of him pleading for Blair to save his life - one of them showing him sitting in a wire cage. Finally, footage was released in early October showing the 62-year-old being decapitated. His body - unlike those of the Americans - has not been found.
Bigley's captors, al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group, had demanded coalition authorities release all female prisoners held in Iraq. The group has been blamed for numerous car bombings and beheadings of other foreign hostages.
An editor at Al-Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the network received Hassan's tape Friday but refused to say how or where. He said the tape included only Hassan's statement.
The U.S. military believes al-Zarqawi is based in Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold west of the capital. U.S. Marines clashed with insurgents on Fallujah's outskirts and launched airstrikes at militant targets overnight, the U.S. command said Friday, ignoring a call from the city's leaders to halt new attacks.
Blair's government agreed Wednesday to move some 850 troops from the southern Basra region to more dangerous central Iraq - despite opposition within his own Labour Party, where some believed the move puts Britons in greater danger and serves to boost President Bush ahead of November elections.
The U.S. military requested the British redeployment to allow American forces to launch a new offensive to put down Sunni insurgents who control swaths of central Iraq ahead of Iraq's crucial elections, scheduled for January.
Insurgent attacks across the country have increased by about 25 percent since the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that began last weekend, with mostly car bombs and strikes on civilians rather than direct assaults on U.S. forces, Pentagon officials say.
U.S. troops and insurgents also battled Friday near Buhriz, a former Saddam Hussein stronghold about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, exchanging gun, rocket and artillery fire as U.S. forces scoured palm groves in search of hidden rebel weaponry, the military said.
Between 20 and 25 insurgents were in the fight, Lt. Col. Keitron Todd told The Associated Press in nearby Baqouba. U.S. forces killed one suspected insurgent, but no Americans were reported dead, said Todd, the executive officer of 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
Fallujah is considered the toughest insurgent stronghold. On Friday - after the night of fierce clashes and airstrikes around the city - the military said that "combat operations" have not begun and American forces have not entered the city. Coalition forces are still conducting "security operations," the military said.
In other developments Friday:
- Abdurrahman Yildirim, a Turkish welder kidnapped last week, escaped from his captors after they left a door open, his uncle Mehmet Balli said. Yildirim made it to Iraqi and U.S. authorities and called his family in Turkey on Wednesday, Balli said.
- The Macedonian Foreign Ministry confirmed that three Macedonian contractors kidnapped in Iraq were beheaded by their captors. Al-Jazeera aired video showing two of the men on Monday, but investigators examining the full tape said it was clear all three men were killed. The three Macedonians, employed by a construction company, were abducted Aug. 21.
- A car bomb exploded Friday near an American armored vehicle in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, wounding five U.S. soldiers, the military said. Also in Mosul, Iraqi National Guard soldiers came under rocket and mortar fire as they arrested suspected car-bomb makers who were praying at a mosque here, the U.S. military said.
- Roadside bombs near the southern port city of Basra hit two patrols, wounding three Danish soldiers, the Danish military said.