"We call on the Islamic Army in Iraq to release the two French journalists in recognition of France's stance during the war and in tribute to French journalists who report the crimes committed daily against the Iraqi people by the American occupation forces," the Iraqi Irshad and al-Fatwa Committee said on Sunday. 

At the same time it called on Paris to overturn its ban on Islamic headscarves in state schools, which the kidnappers have demanded the French government should do within 48 hours. 

Radio France Internationale correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper went missing on 20 August, the day they were to have left Baghdad for the city of Najaf.

Late on Saturday, Aljazeera broadcast images of Chesnot and Malbrunot along with an ultimatum from the Islamic Army in Iraq, the same group that killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni after kidnapping him.

'Domestic affair'

The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), Sunni Islam's highest religious authority in Iraq, also called for the journalists' immediate release. 

"We are against these kidnappings, particularly of journalists because they are our voice in Iraq," member Shaikh Abd al-Sattar Abd al-Jabbar said. 

"If the kidnappers are true Muslims and respect Sharia (Islamic) law, they must release the hostages"

Shaikh Abd Al-Sattar Abd Al-Jabbar,
AMS, Sunni Islam's highest religious authority in Iraq

"The veil is a domestic affair for France. But perhaps we can ask it to pay attention to Muslims and modify its policy," he added. 

"If the kidnappers are true Muslims and respect Sharia (Islamic) law, they must release the hostages," he said. 

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) also called for the hostages' release. "We appeal to those who have abducted the journalists to spare their lives and their dignity and to release them immediately because this is a greater service for the cause of Iraq and for the cause of Muslims in France and elsewhere," said the group. 

The IAF "believes the veil is an Islamic duty for Muslim women ... it does not believe that abducting journalists is the proper way to press for" a lift of the French ban, it said in a statement.

France's appeal

Meanwhile, France demanded the kidnappers release the journalists and defended the veil ban.

President Jacques Chirac also sent Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to the Middle East immediately to tap Paris's extensive contacts in the region in a bid to release the hostages.

Earlier, the French government and leaders of its Muslim minority urged Iraqi fighters to free the two journalists.

"We want everyone to know that secularism in our country does not divide the French but unites them," Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said, flanked by Muslim leaders. 

"French people of all origins and all religions are united in support of our compatriots Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot," he said.

"Together, we ask for their release." 

'Odious blackmail'

French Muslim leaders reacted nervously to the news and promptly denied there was any link between the two issues. 

The Islamic Army has claimed the
killing of an Italian journalist

"The French Muslim community is absolutely innocent," said Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. "I beg that there not be any confusion between the French Muslim community and this odious blackmail." 

Lhaj Thami Breze, head of the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) which has urged schoolgirls to defy the ban, said the headscarf issue was strictly a French affair.

"We cannot accept any outside interference," he said. 

Son's plea

In an interview with Aljazeera, Ayman Muhammad al-Jundi, the son of the kidnapped driver who accompanied the French reporters, appealed to the captors to release the hostages.
 

"French people are like Iraqi people, they have no connection with the government decisions. The French reporters support, in particular, the issues of the Iraqi people and, in general, Muslims' issues," said al-Jundi.  

He told the kidnappers to realize that "the French government sympathises with the Iraqi people."

Al-Jundi pleaded for his father's life: "I ask for your sympathy to set my father free as soon as possible as his wife and children are waiting for him."