Baghdad, Sept. 22 (Reuters): With time running out to save a British hostage in Iraq, US officials said today they were not about to free female Iraqi prisoners as demanded by an al Qaida ally whose group has already beheaded two Americans.
The Iraqi government said judges had ruled that a weapons scientist ' one of only two women Washington says it holds ' should be given a conditional release, but only in a few days.
It was unclear whether Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's demand for all women to be freed even referred to this pair at all ' both scientists, they worked for Saddam Hussein's secular government.
The Jordanian Islamist's Tawhid and Jihad group, responsible for some of the bloodiest violence in Iraq, says it killed American building contractors Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong after its demand was not met. It says their British colleague Kenneth Bigley, 62, will be next to die but has set no deadline.
Footage of the beheading of Armstrong, 52, was posted on the Internet on Monday. An Internet statement yesterday said Hensley, who would have turned 49 today, had now also been killed. The US embassy said it now had his headless body. The Iraqi justice ministry said one of the two women in US custody in Iraq, Rihab Taha, could be freed later in the day.
But the US embassy said later that the two women, Taha and Huda Ammash, dubbed 'Dr Germ' and 'Mrs Anthrax' by US forces, would not be released soon. 'The two women are in legal and physical custody of the multinational forces in Iraq and neither will be released imminently,' a spokesman said.
He said that although legal custody of Saddam Hussein and 11 of his top aides has been transferred to Iraqi authorities, the other 84 'high-value detainees' held by US forces, including the two women, remained in American legal custody.
Kassim Daoud, the Iraqi government's national security adviser, later said Taha was one of three detainees who may be given conditional release later in the month.
'Iraqi judges decided to release them because they didn't have any evidence. The judges decided on a conditional release. It will not happen today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,' he said, adding that the move was unrelated to the demands of the kidnappers.
'We have sympathy for the British hostage and his family and the British people but I am afraid we have to stand firmly and reject any negotiations with the terrorists,' Daoud said. In its Internet statement yesterday, Zarqawi's group said that unless its demands were met, Bigley would be killed.
'Lions of the Tawhid and Jihad have slaughtered the second American hostage after the deadline,' the statement said, adding that footage of the killing would be posted on the Internet. 'The British hostage will meet the same fate if the British government does not do what must be done to release him.'
The statement was posted 24 hours after Hensley's compatriot Eugene Armstrong was killed, his head sawn off by a black-clad, hooded militant using a long knife. The CIA says it believes Zarqawi was probably the one wielding the blade. The three were seized from their Baghdad home last Thursday.
In the latest in a wave of car bomb attacks in the capital this month, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle in a crowded commercial street as dozens of men wanting to join the country's security forces queued up to photocopy their documents. Would-be recruits have been repeatedly targeted by insurgents.
Officials at Baghdad's Yarmuk hospital said 11 people were killed. At the scene, scores of sandals and shoes lay in pools of blood on the pavement.