For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, abducting 60-year-old aid worker Margaret Hassan "shows the kind of people that we are up against".

For Australian journalist John Martinkus, seizing foreign nationals is an intelligent way of "fighting a war" when you are outnumbered and outgunned. And unlike Blair, Martinkus has first hand hostage experience.

Released unharmed over the weekend, SBS Television Dateline's Martinkus said his captors freed him after establishing his independence on Iraq coverage.

"These guys [are] not stupid. They're fighting a war but they're not savages. They're not actually just killing people willy-nilly. They talk to you, they think about things," he said at Melbourne airport on Tuesday.
   
"There was a reason to kill [British captive Kenneth] Bigley, there was a reason to kill the Americans; there was not a reason to kill me - luckily I managed to convince them of that," he said.

SBS executive producer Mike Carey said the journalist was freed after his captors used a popular internet search engine to establish he was an independent reporter who did not support the US presence in Iraq.
  
Justification

Various Iraqi groups have abducted more than 100 foreign nationals in a bid to destabilise Iraq's US-appointed interim government and force troops to leave.
 
And the kidnap of Care International's director is just the exception that proves a rule, says Egyptian politician Majdi Husain: 99% of those taken captive in Iraq are legitimate targets.

"There was a reason to kill [British captive Ken] Bigley, there was a reason to kill the Americans; there was not a reason to kill me"

John Martinkus,
Australian journalist

While the secretary-general of Egypt's Labour Party accepts Margaret Hassan and French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot should be released at once - he says most other captives were collaborating with US forces and were fair game.

Husain also told Aljazeera on Sunday that the media should not describe the vast majority of foreigners detained by various Iraqi groups as hostages.

"They are not hostages but prisoners and according to Islamic law, they can be exchanged, set free or executed. All those who were killed were agents and partners of the occupation," he said.

Collaborators

Husain asks why some prominent Muslim voices suggest killing those who actively support the US war effort is wrong, especially when two thirds of those taken captive were later released in exchange for political or financial gains.

"The war effort is not restricted to those who just carry weapons. The war effort includes transport and supplies. Aren't supply lines part of military activity?"

"An Iraqi interpreter working for an American soldier - isn't that part of the war effort? Undoubtedly, all those killed were not civilians."

Husain's comments, while no doubt unpopular in the West, find currency among mainstream scholars at the al-Azhar University in Cairo, who have issued numerous fatwas (rulings) legitimising this position.

Perhaps one of the more famous statements on the subject was made by the late Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut: "Anyone working in the enemy military camps and factories is one of them and may be killed."

Civilian contractors

This is particularly relevant in Iraq where so many of the tasks that would normally be performed by the army have been contracted out to private firms. Referred to as civilians in the Western media, Husain says "they are anything but civil".

No female hostages have been
executed in Iraq to date

And there are plenty of modern day Islamic scholars who rule out all links with US forces.

Dr Sajid al-Dalimi, a professor at the faculty of sharia at Baghdad University concludes that even an Iraqi working for the occupation troops in Iraq should be "considered a spy who betrays his country and people".

But it is not just Muslim clerics who discuss the ethics of taking captives. Bruce Blythe, head of Crisis Management International in Atlanta, says the practice is just "another way for have-nots to level the playing field ... another tool in their arsenal".

Involved in hostage rescue and negotiation attempts himself, Blythe adds that it has become clear that Iraqi groups taking captives "are being more purposeful about it".

Accepting that a tiny minority of groups that take foreign captives have made mistakes and that atrocities happen in all wars, Husain wonders why both the US and Britain have forgotten their own records in taking and killing captives.

Vietnam forgotten

In September 2004, the US record in Vietnam took a new turn. More evidence emerged of a US army platoon - known as Tiger Force - that killed hundreds of unarmed men, women and children over a period of months in 1967.

Already steeped in investigations of abuse by US soldiers of Iraqi prisoners, the army has not yet decided whether to prosecute Tiger Force's retired commanding officer, Major James Hawkins.

Questions remain over whether army lawyers have the legal power to charge the 63-year-old former officer, but at least 45 other members of the platoon could face investigations ranging from assault to murder of captured civilians.

A former unit medic told one media investigation that soldiers "would go into villages and just shoot everybody. We didn't need an excuse. If they were there, they were dead". And the two soldiers that did protest were transferred out rather than heard.

British example

And travelling back just a little further in time, analysts, such as Britain's Michael Walsh, have uncovered plenty of evidence that British troops not only took civilians captive, but executed them too.

Walsh writes that the International Red Cross threatened to bring the British government before international tribunals for abuse and illegal enslavement that was going on even three years after the second world war had ended.

"The war effort is not restricted to those who just carry weapons. The war effort includes transport and supplies ... undoubtedly, all those killed ... were not civilians"

Majdi Husain, secretary-general of Egyptian Labour Party

"Tragically even [German] civilians were illegally held, deported and murdered in the tens of thousands ... the evil killers responsible have so far evaded justice."

Quoting a former British army veteran, Walsh recounts how, during the second half of 1945, British troops guarding suspected Nazi civilians made them live on starvation rations in a camp called Sennelager.

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper also quoted the veteran on 22 April 1995 regarding the treatment of these civilians.

"They were frequently beaten and grew as thin as concentration camp victims, scooping handfuls of swill from our waste bins.

"They could be shot on sight if they ventured close to the perimeter fence. It was a common trick to throw a cigarette just inside the fence and shoot any prisoner who tried to reach it."

Bombing Los Angeles

Given imperfect wartime records, Majdi Husain also asked Aljazeera viewers why US Vice-President Dick Cheney constantly warns of possible biological, chemical or even nuclear attack on American cities when "we are the weak ones".

"They make demands on us that don't exist in international law. There must be reciprocity. Those who bomb Falluja cannot argue against me bombing Los Angeles.

"If we had missiles we should have bombed LA or any other [US] city until they stopped bombing Falluja, Samarra and Ramadi," he said.

But fighters around Iraq do not have missiles, so it may well be that the captive phenomenon will continue for a long time to come.