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Iraqi Cleric Demands Release of French Reporters

An influential radical Iraqi cleric demanded on Sunday that the two French journalists kidnapped two weeks ago in Iraq be immediately set free.

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Muslims have rallied in France to call for the journalists' release

A leading radical Iraqi cleric on Sunday issued an Islamic decree demanding the immediate release of two French reporters held hostage for more than two weeks.

"We issued a fatwa urging the group to immediately free and not to harm the two French reporters, in recognition of France's position on Iraq," Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumaidaie, a senior cleric from the strict Wahhabist current of Islam, told AFP.

The cleric, an influential figure among extremist Sunni Muslim groups behind most kidnappings in Iraq lately, also lambasted the Iraqi government and US forces for staging a raid in the area where the pair was kidnapped, saying it had harmed efforts for their

release.

"The attack on Latifiya disrupted the process of their release," he said at a press conference.

Iraqi government forces backed by US troops staged their boldest raid yet against extremist Sunni insurgents in Latifiya, a lawless town south of Baghdad which had become a no-go area for foreigners and Iraqi security forces.

Snatched by a sect

Geiselnahme im Irak Französische Journalisten Georges Malbrunot, rechts, Christian Chesnot, links

French reporter Georges Malbrunot (right) of "Le Figaro" newspaper and French radio reporter Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale (RFI) were kidnapped in Iraq on August 20.

Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale (RFI) were snatched in Latifiya by a radical sect named the Islamic Army of Iraq, which has previously abducted and executed hostages, including an Italian journalist last month.

The Wahhabist cleric said that kidnapping journalists "gives government and US forces a pretext to carry out attacks against Latifiya and Fallujah."

On Sunday, another group calling itself the Black Banners Brigade of the Secret Islamic Army (SIA), said in a videotaped statement aired on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station it was awaiting a fatwa on hostage-taking.

"We call on the Committee of Ulema to issue a fatwa... defining these acts," one masked militant said, in reference to the most senior Sunni Muslims authority in the country.

Experts had warned that stepped up military activity against rebel strongholds in the area could harm the chances of Malbrunot and Chesnot, who have been held since August 20.

"The journalists should be freed to avoid turning France into an enemy of Iraq," Sheikh Mehdi said, highlighting France's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

"We met with the French ambassador and the delegation representing the Muslim faith in France and they assured us they would not seek the help of the Americans to secure the release of the journalists, and would only rely on Muslims," the cleric added.

French diplomatic efforts

The Wahabist leader nevertheless prodded the French government on the original condition set by the captors who had demanded Paris scrap a controversial ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in state schools.

"We call on the French government to scrap or postpone the (Islamic headscarf) law. This would amount to a favor for all Muslims," he said.

French diplomats criss-crossed the Middle East all week to secure the release of the two journalists but their whereabouts were unknown on Sunday.

The conditions set by the captors were the first time a group tried to intervene in the domestic affairs of a foreign country not supporting the US presence in Iraq.

Their tactic backfired as international condemnation poured in and the Muslim world united behind the cause of the reporters.

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