A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq has been holding since August 20 two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot. In a 48-hour ultimatum it demanded that Paris drop a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools, originally by last Tuesday night, and later extended to Wednesday. Although the French government has launched an intensive diplomatic bid to free the hostages by the deadline, it has refused to withdraw the law introducing the ban, which is due to come into effect on Thursday September 2.
The Islamic Army is one of several shadowy groups operating in Iraq. It has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, following Italy’s failure to respond to its demand for Italian troops to leave Iraq. In late July, the same group beheaded two Pakistanis working for U.S. forces in Iraq. Earlier that month it claimed it was behind the March shooting of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah. This is the first time a demand has been made from a group kidnapping foreigners which does not have any connection with the Iraqi struggle. Arab press reaction to this exploit, which “violates what have become the rules of the kidnapping game in post-occupation Iraq”, is universally negative, particularly in view of France’s traditional, independent political position vis-à-vis Washington’s policies on the Middle East. This last point, much to the annoyance of France, was highlighted by Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, when he observed that “governments that decide to stay on the defensive will [equally] be the next terrorist targets”.
The clumsiness of target choice and ultimatum, leaves the motives and the identity of the kidnappers open to suspicion. From the course of events, and their low subsequent profile, it appears that the abduction was purely opportunistic, following which a demand had to be hastily invented. This is what happened on August 4 when the same group claimed the kidnapping of Iranian diplomat Feridun Jahani, and demanded variously that Iran desist from interfering in Iraqi affairs, or that Iran return prisoners remaining from the Iran-Iraq war.  Tehran said it had none and the deadline passed without incident.
Shaykh Hisham al-Dulaymi, the head of the National Association of Iraqi Tribal Leaders who has acted as mediator in freeing other hostages in Iraq, and who claims to be mediating with the kidnappers, stated that they have promised to release the hostages unharmed. But other groups in Iraq, including the Committee of Ulema, an influential Sunni Muslim organization in Iraq, stated that it had failed to make contact with the kidnappers and feared the journalists might already be killed. If the hostages are still alive, it is possible that the contradictory effects of the abduction may sway the kidnappers. Muslim groups promoting the use of the scarf in France have distanced themselves from the demands made by the Islamic Army, and appeals have been made on Islamist websites from radical groups urging the kidnappers to remain sensitive to the negative political fallout. 
1. During negotiations over Kuwaiti hostages at the end of July the issue of Iraqi prisoners of war also was raised. The kidnapping group in that case called itself the “Black Banners” brigade of the Islamic Secret Army and demanded that Kuwait release its Iraqi prisoners.
2. A group calling itself Gama’at al-Tawhid al-Islamiyya posted an appeal on an Islamist forum (www.islamic-minbar.com) for the release of the hostages “in understanding of France’s position concerning the war in Iraq and the demands of millions of Muslims in France.”