BAGHDAD, Iraq – As a deadline neared for hostage American journalist Jill Carroll, Muslim leaders and her pleading mother appealed Thursday to kidnappers to spare her life and set her free.
Referring to demands from Carroll's abductors that Iraqi women be released from U.S. custody, a senior Iraqi official said six jailed Iraqi women were due to be freed by the U.S. military.
But the White House said no prisoner release appeared imminent, and a major Sunni Arab clerical group said it could do little to help because it did not know who was holding the 28-year-old reporter.
The kidnappers — identified as the previously unknown "Revenge Brigade" — have set a deadline of Friday evening for all Iraqi female detainees to be freed or they will kill Carroll. However, Iraqi kidnappers have often given such ultimatums only to ignore them and continue holding captives.
New images showing Carroll surrounded by three armed and masked gunmen were aired Thursday by Al-Jazeera television. The 20 seconds of silent footage were from the same tape as excerpts broadcast Tuesday announcing the 72-hour deadline.
Carroll's mother said the video images gave her hope her daughter is alive but also have "shaken us about her fate."
"I, her father and her sister are appealing directly to her captors to release this young woman who has worked so hard to show the sufferings of Iraqis to the world," Mary Beth Carroll said in a television interview.
Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim Ali, said six of the eight Iraqi women in custody are expected to be freed next week, but he stressed that any release would "not be part of any swap with any kidnappers."
"I insisted that the Americans should bring (the women's) files and release them and they will be freed next week along with other detainees," Ali told Associated Press Television News. He did not elaborate on who the other detainees were, but said the recommendation to free the women was made Monday.
Speculation that the Iraqi women might soon be freed raised hopes for the release of Carroll, a freelance journalist who was working for the Christian Science Monitor when she was seized Jan. 7 in Baghdad. Her translator was killed.
U.S. military officials repeatedly refused Thursday to confirm whether any release was imminent. In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bush administration was working hard to secure Carroll's freedom but said no Iraqi detainees were expected to be released soon.
"Any time you have an American held hostage, wherever they are, they are a priority for the administration," McClellan said. "And we want to see her safe return. As I indicated yesterday, too, I don't think it's really helpful to go beyond that at this point."
Carroll grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and received an undergraduate degree in journalism in 1999 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.
Her newspaper's Washington bureau chief, David Cook, also urged the captors to contact the paper to discuss her release. Cook would not say specifically if the newspaper would pay ransom.
"I think our policy would be that we would welcome contact from the captors," he told NBC. "Either the family or the Monitor would be eager to talk to the captors."
Calls for Carroll's freedom were also made by Muslim leaders in Iraq as well as a team of U.S.-based Islamic advocates traveling to the Middle East to seek her release.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations flew to the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Thursday and scheduled a news conference Friday in Baghdad. The group said it hopes to reach Arab television audiences and persuade Carroll's captors to free her.
The Bloomfield Hills-based Islamic Shura Council of Michigan, which represents about 20 Muslim groups in the state, told the Detroit Free Press that Carroll's kidnapping would not help the Iraqi cause.
In Iraq, leaders of three prominent Sunni Muslim groups demanded Carroll's release. Iraq's insurgency draws the bulk of its support from the Sunni Arab community, which lost power with the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"We condemn the abduction of journalists who are a means to convey the truth to the people," said Muthana Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is believed to have ties to some Sunni insurgent groups. Al-Dhari said his group did not know who was holding Carroll.
French journalist and former hostage Florence Aubenas, who was released in June after being held hostage in Iraq for 157 days, also called for Carroll's release. "She came to this country to do her job as a journalist and not anything else," Aubenas told Al-Jazeera.
Carroll's mother said her daughter had discussed the possibility of being kidnapped in Iraq, where more than 240 foreigners have been taken hostage and at least 39 killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Iraqis have been abducted either by insurgents or gangs seeking ransoms.
"Those things have been said. And she knows that we love her and support her," Mary Beth Carroll said. "She knows that we can be strong for her."