Friday, October 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — Trembling, haggard and weeping into a tissue, Margaret Hassan, the kidnapped British aid worker who has spent nearly half her life delivering food and medicine in Iraq, begged Britain yesterday to withdraw its troops because these “might be my last hours.”

The gaunt woman’s wrenching televised statement — delivered in between sobs — puts new political pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, one day after it agreed to a U.S. request to transfer 850 British soldiers from southern Iraq to the Baghdad area to free American forces for new offensives against insurgents.

“Please help me, please help me,” Mrs. Hassan, a British-Irish-Iraqi national who heads CARE International operations in Iraq, said in a grainy videotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera television. “This might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr. Blair to take the troops out of Iraq, and not to bring them here to Baghdad.”

Mr. Blair’s decision to redeploy the troops drew strong criticism from within his Labor Party, and Mrs. Hassan’s desperate appeal is likely to boost opposition among the British public, where support for the Iraq mission has never been as strong as in the United States.

“That’s why people like Mr. Bigley and myself are being caught,” Mrs. Hassan said, referring to British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was beheaded earlier this month. “And maybe we will die like Mr. Bigley. Please, please, I beg of you.”

Iraqi extremists have often subjected foreign hostages to such humiliating performances, exploiting their agony to win concessions from their employers or governments, stir up opposition to U.S.-led operations in the country and win terrorist recruits from within the Muslim world.

Unlike most previous hostage tapes, however, this one featured no hooded gunmen, no banners identifying the militant group and no demands in exchange the hostage’s freedom. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based station, said it received the tape yesterday but did not say where or how.

Mrs. Hassan, who is married to an Iraqi, was seized by gunmen Tuesday in western Baghdad as she rode to work in her car. She appeared in the tape wearing what appeared to be a robe or housedress. A tape released on the day of her abduction showed her wearing a white blouse with a round collar.

Mrs. Hassan, believed to be in her early 60s, has done aid work in Iraq for almost 30 years. She joined CARE soon after it began operations in Iraq in 1991, managing a staff of 60 Iraqis who man nutrition, health and water programs throughout the country.

She was a vocal opponent of international sanctions on Iraq and warned British lawmakers before last year’s U.S.-led invasion that a conflict could produce a humanitarian crisis in a country already severely weakened by the embargoes.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the videotape as “extremely distressing” and called for Mrs. Hassan’s immediate release.

Militants have kidnapped at least seven other foreign women over the past six months, and all were released. In September, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices; they were freed three weeks later.

In contrast, at least 33 foreign male hostages have been killed, including three Americans beheaded by their captors.

In the latest clashes, U.S. troops battled insurgents yesterday with small arms, rocket and artillery fire near Buhriz, a former Saddam Hussein stronghold about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. U.S. troops killed nine suspected insurgents but took no casualties, the military said.

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