BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Sunni clerics and residents of a Baghdad neighborhood where four kidnapped Christian humanitarian workers had spent time helping people appealed Friday for their release a day ahead of the deadline for authorities to free all prisoners.
Sunni Arab clerics also took the opportunity of Friday”s prayers to urge a big Sunni turnout in Thursday”s elections, saying that voting was a "religious duty" that could hasten the departure of American troops.
Sporadic violence left two people dead in Baghdad on Friday, one day after a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a packed bus bound for the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah, killing 32 people and wounding 44.
A U.S. military medical evacuation helicopter also made a "hard landing" in Tarmiyah 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital. No one was injured.
The Canadian Islamic Congress to Iraq sent an envoy, Ehab Lotayef, to try and help win the release of the humanitarian workers who were abducted two weeks ago. They include an American, two Canadians and a Briton and a group known as the Swords of Righteousness has set a Saturday deadline threatening to kill them unless U.S. and Iraqi authorities free all prisoners.
A French aid worker and a German citizen are also being held by kidnappers.
During prayers in the al-Imam al-Aadam mosque in Baghdad”s predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in north Baghdad, cleric Ahmed Hassan demanded that the four charity workers be released.
"I stress on the necessity to release the four kidnapped foreigners who have helped the residents of Azamiyah," he said as residents held aloft protest banners.
"The people of Azamiyah will not forget the honest positions peacemakers," read one, while another said "we demand the release of the abducted peacemakers."
Meanwhile, a statement posted on the Internet in the name of the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed to have killed an American hostage. The statement Thursday did not name him or provide photos, but the group earlier identified its captive as Ronald Alan Schulz and threatened to kill him unless all prisoners in Iraq were released.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have predicted a surge in insurgent attacks ahead of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. U.S. officials hope a large turnout, especially among Sunni Arabs, will help deflate the insurgency and lead to a reduction of American forces next year.
A Sunni cleric from the Association of Muslim Scholars told worshippers at Baghdad”s Umm al-Qura mosque that a large turnout from the community was important. The association is thought to have links to some groups in the Sunni-led insurgency, which had asked the minority to boycott last January”s elections.
"The date of Dec. 15 is landmark event. It is a decisive battle that will determine our future. If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the occupation will continue and the country would be lost. Participation in the elections is a must and it is a religious duty," he said.
In Baghdad, police said a roadside bomb in the southern Dora neighborhood killed a police officer while another in western Saydiyah missed an American military patrol and killed an Iraqi passer-by.