BAGHDAD -- As a deadline neared for hostage American journalist Jill Carroll, Muslim leaders and her mother appealed yesterday to kidnappers to spare her life and set her free.
Referring to demands from Carroll's abductors that Iraqi women be released from US custody, a senior Iraqi official said six jailed Iraqi women were due to be freed by the US 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 this 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 masked gunmen were aired yesterday 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 told CNN's ''American Morning."
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 Boston-based Christian Science Monitor when she was seized Jan. 7 in Baghdad. Her translator was killed.
US military officials repeatedly refused yesterday 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."
Calls for Carroll's freedom were also made by Muslim leaders in Iraq as well as a team of US-based Islamic advocates traveling to the Middle East to seek her release.