BAGHDAD, Iraq – An aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) denounced the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq and appealed for their release Friday in a sermon at a makeshift pulpit outside the revered mosque in Kufa as hundreds of worshippers held their first weekly prayers since last week's peace agreement.
Al-Sadr aides initially said the cleric planned to give the sermon at the Kufa mosque, which was closed last week after militants pulled out as part of the peace deal, but he abandoned the idea amid fears it could raise tensions. Iraqi security forces also sealed off roads and fired warning shots near the city, seeking to limit the number of worshippers and avoid unrest.
Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji, delivering al-Sadr's sermon on his behalf, condemned the kidnapping of the two French journalists and urged their quick release.
"This is inhumane and I ask that it not be repeated in the future," he said. "You should know that such actions are not part of the Iraqi resistance. ... They tarnish the image of the Iraqi resistance."
France said it had received word that the captives, Christian Chesnot (search) and Georges Malbrunot (search), were alive and one of their employers claimed the kidnappers had handed them over to a Sunni Muslim opposition group.
Hopes for their release were raised further Friday when Abdul-Salam Al-Qubeisi, an official with the Association of Muslim Scholars — a Sunni clerical organization with alleged ties to insurgents — said the Frenchmen's lives were no longer threatened and it was only a matter of time before they would be freed.
"The state of danger is no longer present," Al-Qubeisi told the Al-Jazeera television station. He did not say how he got the information or if he was in touch with the kidnappers.
Iraqi police and national guardsmen set up checkpoints, barring all cars from entering Kufa a week after al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army (search) relinquished control of the city's revered shrine.
Ahmed al-Shaibani, an al-Sadr aide, accused police forces of arresting dozens of the cleric's followers in Kufa and the nearby city of Najaf, which was devastated by three weeks of bitter fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi militia that ended last week.
Nevertheless, about 2,000 followers of al-Sadr lined the street in front of the mosque, setting up a pulpit on the street.
Despite the peace deal in Najaf, many members of al-Sadr's militia are thought to have returned with their weapons to their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City (search) and the cleric's representatives and Iraq's interim government have been seeking common ground to end fighting there.
"We consider ourselves to be in a state of war against the Iraqi police" al-Shaibani said.
In Najaf, dozens of protesters chanted slogans denouncing al-Sadr and blaming him for the destruction in the city and demanding that al-Sadr and his Mahdi militiamen leave.
Also Friday, firefighters battled a massive oil pipeline fire that raged in Riyadh about 40 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, a day after saboteurs detonated explosives on the line linking fields near Kirkuk with the oil refinery of Beiji, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin of the Iraqi National Guard.
"It is the biggest sabotage operation on the oil installations in Kirkuk since the (American) invasion," Amin said.
Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said the militants who claimed to be holding the French reporters had handed them over to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group.
He said the opposition group favors the release of the hostages.
"That is an extremely positive point," de Belot told French radio. "But we must be prudent in this kind of mixed-up situation because we know well that until the good news arrives, we can't let ourselves be absolutely reassured."
In Amman, Jordan, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier also sounded cautiously optimistic.
"According to the indications which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health and are being well treated," he said at a news conference.
The frantic efforts to win the release of the hostages were spurred on by the passage of a deadline for the French government to revoke a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools that went into effect Thursday.
A militant group calling itself "The Islamic Army of Iraq" said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France lift its headscarf ban, but the government refused. Malbrunot, 41, reports for the daily Le Figaro and Chesnot, 37, is with Radio France International. They were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.
Militants waging a 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. But France has no troops in Iraq and gained points with Arabs for leading the opposition to last year's U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the insurgency but said the United States would "not become faint of heart" in enforcing its Iraq policy.
The Defense Department said the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.
In other developments:
— Three Macedonian contractors disappeared in Iraq 10 days ago, a government spokesman in Skopje and their employers said Friday. Iraqi officials have been unable to confirm whether they were kidnapped.
— The U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers were wounded when they were hit by shrapnel when their convoy came under attack while on patrol near the city of Tikrit.
— Gunmen abducted four policemen and an Iranian they were escorting to the border to be deported after raiding their hotel room in the southern city of Basra, a senior Basra police official said on condition of anonymity. The official declined to provide details on why he was being deported, but linked the Iranian's deportation to the unrest in Najaf.