CANBERRA, Australia – A senior Muslim cleric is offering to swap places with an Australian hostage held in Iraq (search), the sheik's spokesman said Thursday.
Douglas Wood (search), a 63-year-old engineer, was abducted early this month by a militant group calling itself the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq.
Australia's mufti, Sheik Taj El Din al-Hilaly (search), flew to Iraq to negotiate his release and last week reported having a telephone conversation with an Australian he believed to be Wood who said he was well.
The sheik has offered to swap places with Wood, a California resident who suffers from a serious heart condition, in a statement expected to be broadcast soon on Middle Eastern television, spokesman Keysar Trad said.
"For the mufti of Australia to make that offer — it's certainly a very attractive offer to any group, to hold a very prominent person and let their captive free so he can seek medical treatment," Trad told Nine Network television.
"They promised to set him free before without these conditions but the mufti's now trying to force their hand and trying to get them to make a move and release Mr. Wood," he said.
Wood's captors have released two DVDs showing their hostage with rifles pointed at his head as he begs the Australian government to pull its troops out of Iraq. The government refuses to bend to terrorists' demands.
The sheik also asked his captors to show proof that Wood is still alive by producing a new videotape.
"I announce my sincere readiness to hand myself over to the captors to be a hostage in exchange for the sick Australian citizen, till the conditions of the brotherly captors are met in the way they want," the sheik said in his statement.
Ikebal Patel, treasurer of the Muslim group Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said the sheik was not concerned for his safety in becoming a hostage.
"He is very respected in the Middle," Patel told Seven. "He has done a lot of good work in the last two weeks in Iraq and we feel that that will carry him through."
Australia sent 2,000 troops to back U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion and almost 1,400 Australian troops remain in the Middle East.