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Italian journalist held hostage pleads for life { February 16 2005 }

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February 16, 2005
Italian Journalist Held Hostage Pleads for Her Life in Video

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 16 - Alternately sobbing, burying her face in her hands and shooting fearful glances at her unseen captors, an Italian reporter pleaded for her life and asked all foreigners to leave Iraq, in a crudely made videotape that surfaced Wednesday.

The reporter, Guiliana Sgrena, spoke in both Italian and French in the videotape as she called for a pullout and emphasized her antiwar reporting. Ms. Sgrena, 56, who works for the leftist Il Manifesto newspaper, was taken away by gunmen after interviewing Iraqis near Baghdad University on Feb. 4.

At one point in the videotape, which was delivered anonymously to Associated Press Television News, Ms. Sgrena received some sort of direction from someone with a high-pitched voice, possibly a woman.

"Pierre, please show the pictures of the children killed by the cluster bombs," Ms. Sgrena said in an appeal to her partner, Pierre Scolari. "I ask my family to help me. I ask everyone who has fought with me against the war and the occupation." In red letters in the upper left-hand corner of the video were the words "Mujahedeen Without Borders."

The release of the tape came as top candidates for prime minister in Iraq jockeyed for position on the day before the official announcement of how many seats in the 275-member national assembly each political party won in elections on Jan. 30. A Shiite religious coalition won 48 percent of the popular vote, but it is expected to receive a slim majority in the assembly.

A deadlock over the selection continued, with two Shiite candidates, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Islamist leader of the Dawa party, and Ahmad Chalabi, the exile leader, clashing over how the alliance will select its prime minister.

Aides to Dr. Jaafari, who on Tuesday persuaded one of his rivals to drop out of the race, said again today that they regarded the race as being over, with Dr. Jaafari the choice. But this afternoon, Dr. Jaafari faced a potential revolt within his own alliance when some of the victorious candidates demanded a formal vote on whom to nominate as prime minister.

Mr. Chalabi, the lone challenger for the spot, believes that he has enough support within the alliance to supplant Dr. Jaafari as the front-runner.

Farid Ayar, a member of Iraq's election commission, said that a wide range of political parties were filing complaints and arguing for more seats on the eve of the formal announcement of how the assembly is made up.

"Most of the complaints, in fact all of them, they say: 'We got some number of votes and we want more,' " Mr. Ayar said. "And they want us to recount everything."

Violence against Iraqi security forces and civilians continued, with bombings, shootings and kidnappings roiling the country from north to south. An American government official said that kidnappers had contacted the families of five Iraqis who had been abducted while surveying the country's devastated southern marshes as part of a restoration program.

The contact in the kidnapping, which was not previously reported, was apparently made to begin ransom negotiations. Beyond the environmental devastation, largely brought on when Saddam Hussein ordered the vast area drained, the marshes have been struck by an outbreak of thievery and a clash between local tribes.

In Baghdad's upscale Monsur district, a man wearing a suicide vest exploded at a checkpoint at 5 p.m., killing one Iraqi national guardsman, an Interior Ministry official said. Later in the day, a second suicide bomber, this one wearing a double explosives vest, was shot before he could detonate, the official said.

An Interior Ministry intelligence officer, Ghazi Houshi, was shot and killed around 9 a.m. in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Doura by masked men in a car bearing no license plates, the ministry said.

Attacks also killed Iraqi security forces in several northern cities. Insurgents fired on a police patrol in Baquba, starting a gunbattle that killed one police officer and two of the insurgents. In Mosul, a car bomb targeting an American convoy caused no military casualties but severely burned at least one civilian. The commander of a local police station in the same city was fired upon around noon; he was slightly wounded, but his driver died.

Mr. Chalabi, the former exile who is now a contender for prime minister, has been assiduously cultivating a group of disaffected members within the alliance, calling for a vote from what is expected to be 140 winning candidates for the Shiite alliance.

The dispute broke into the open today when Mr. Jaafari showed up at a meeting of the victorious Shiite assembly candidates. Accounts of the meeting differed, but according to several people in attendance, when Mr. Jaafari began to address the group, many of the candidates began calling for a vote.

After giving a short speech, Mr. Jaafari left the meeting.

"Al Jaafari attended the meeting, and then left saying he was busy with another issue," said Maryam Al-Rais, a winning assembly candidate, who was at the meeting. "He seemed upset when we called for voting."

Some of those calling for a vote were from the same party that had agreed the day before to withdraw their own candidate for prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. That had seemed to give the edge to Mr. Jaafari.

Yet even among leaders of the rival party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the desire to cast a ballot seemed intense.

"It's not over yet," said Rada Jawad Taki of the Supreme Council, whose offices were host to the meeting. "Everyone agreed about voting."

For their part, people close to Mr. Chalabi said that he had persuaded a majority of the 140 winning candidates to support him. Still, it wasn't clear if the desire to vote had more to do with wanting Mr. Chalabi than with being able to choose the prime minister, whoever it turned out to be.

Mr. Jaafari, a physician who spent more than 20 years in exile, is regarded as a politician of Islamist leanings but who is careful not to stray too far out on an issue. A former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Mr. Jaafari was critical though not especially visible during the heavy fighting in April and August and November, when American forces moved to crush rebellions in different parts of the country.

Mr. Jaafari was one of the Shiite leaders who boycotted the signing of the interim constitution last spring, in protest over a provision that would allow a minority of voters to nullify the permanent constitution when it is put to referendum later this year. The provision was written into the constitution, under American direction, to help ensure the rights of important minorities, like the Sunnis and Kurds.

Mr. Jaafari, like the other Shiite leaders, eventually agreed to sign the document. But Mr. Jaafari has not dropped his oppositions, and his aides say he may support deleting that provision when the new Iraqi government takes over.

Once the Bush administration's most important ally in Iraq, Mr. Chalabi has seen his fortunes rise and fall and now rise again. The chief Iraqi proponent of an American invasion of Iraq, Mr. Chalabi fell out of favor when the argument he helped advance - that Saddam Hussein had nuclear, biological and chemical weapons - turned out to be false.

Mr. Chalabi's fortunes reached a low ebb last May, when American and Iraqi agents, alleging that Mr. Chalabi has passed secret codes to Iran, raided his compound in Baghdad.

Until Tuesday, Mr. Mahdi had seemed to be the Americans' favorite candidate for the top job. But now, with Mr. Mahdi out and the race down to Mr. Jaafari and Mr. Chalabi, it seemed conceivable that Mr. Chalabi's prospects, at least with the Bush administration, could rise again.

As the winning members of the huge Shiite coalition fought over the spoils of the election, several secular parties that had won few seats or none said today that they regretted their decision to go it alone instead of banding together. Three of those parties, the Communist Party, a monarchist party and a party led by the secular Sunni Adnan Pachachi, said that they were likely to challenge the Shiite bloc by forming coalitions the next time elections are held.

If successful, the move could be significant in Iraq's balance of power, with the Shiite bloc once expected to win overwhelmingly holding such a tenuous grip on the assembly.

"For the next elections, of course, we will think of making alliances with parties that have democratic features," said Mufeed Al Jazaeri, the current minister of culture and a member of the Communist Party, which is thought to have won two seats.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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