BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. negotiators were working around the clock to secure the release of hostage American journalist Jill Carroll as a deadline set by militants threatening to kill her passed Friday with no word on her fate.
Muslims from Baghdad to Paris urged the militants to free the 28-year-old woman and end Iraq's wave of kidnappings. More than 240 foreigners have been taken captive and at least 39 killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Carroll was seized in a rough Baghdad neighborhood on Jan. 7 by gunmen who killed her translator. The Sunni Arab politician she had gone to interview urged her release and demanded that U.S. forces stop detaining Iraqi women.
"This act has hurt me and makes me sad because the journalist was trying to meet me when she was kidnapped," Adnan al-Dulaimi said Friday. "I call upon the kidnappers to immediately release this reporter who came here to cover Iraq's news and defend our rights."
A videotape sent by Carroll's kidnappers, a group calling itself "The Revenge Brigade," was aired Tuesday by the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, which said her captors threatened to kill her unless U.S. forces freed all Iraqi women in military custody within 72 hours.
No hour was specified, and there was no indication if any prisoners had been released. But the U.S. military confirmed Friday that it has nine Iraqi women in its detention facilities on suspicion of terror-related activities.
"We don't comment on whether Iraqi female or male detainees are in the process of being released," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said. "Of course we understand the cultural sensitivities in detaining females and pay particular attention to assessing their files."
Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim Ali, visited the women Friday and said six of them — three from Baghdad, and one each from Mosul, Kirkuk and Tal Afar — would be freed next week.
"There's no link between the government's request for their release and the kidnapped American journalist," said Ali, who saw the detainees at a U.S. facility near Baghdad International Airport.
"But I hope that their release will lead to her (Carroll's) release."
Carroll grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and graduated from the University of Massachusetts. She worked as a reporting assistant for The Wall Street Journal before moving to Jordan and launching her freelance career in 2002, learning Arabic along the way. Most recently, she was working for The Christian Science Monitor.
A U.S. official said little has been heard from the kidnappers since two roughly 20-second portions of the videotape were aired Tuesday and Thursday. They showed Carroll sitting in a house, surrounded by three armed, masked men.
A Baghdad-based team of U.S. hostage situation specialists, including FBI agents, diplomats and military personnel, has been following multiple leads in the hunt for Carroll, a U.S. Embassy official said. They were meeting with prominent Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arab politicians who may know the kidnappers, the official said.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said he was unaware of any contacts between the high-level hostage release team and Carroll's kidnappers.
Iraqi kidnappers have often given deadlines or ultimatums only to ignore them and keep holding captives. Kidnappers of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, seized in Baghdad in February 2005, initially gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The Italians did not comply, but Sgrena was released a month later.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Iraqis have been abducted either by insurgents or gangs seeking ransoms.
According to figures compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, there was an average of two kidnappings a day of Iraqis in Baghdad in January 2004 and 10 a day in December of that year. Last month, the think tank said kidnappings of Iraqis averaged 30 a day nationwide.
In a statement aired Friday by two major Arab television stations, Carroll's father, Jim, described his daughter as "an innocent woman" and told the captors that sparing her life would "serve your cause more than her death."
French Muslim leaders and former hostages gathered in the Grand Mosque of Paris Friday to appeal for Carroll's release and urge the U.S. government to negotiate with her kidnappers.
"It is deeply revolting that an innocent life is threatened," said Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grand Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
A delegation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations flew to Jordan and planned to come to Baghdad to try to secure Carroll's release.
A spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an Iraqi Sunni clerical group that has contacts with some insurgent groups, said it could do little because it did not know who was holding the reporter.
Foreign diplomats have often sought help from the association in previous abductions, although it has never advocated kidnappings nor acknowledged playing any role in securing releases.
"We plead with the kidnappers of the American female journalist and all kidnappers to release any hostages they are holding who are not part of the occupation," Sheik Mahmoud Al-Sumaidy said after a sermon at the Sunni Um al-Quraa mosque in Baghdad.