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Kidnapped CBS Journalists To Be Released Within Hours

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Update 12:30 PM Eastern from The Guardian:

The interpreter abducted in the southern Iraqi city of Basra alongside an unnamed British journalist working for the American CBS network has been freed, according to a news agency report.

However, the male CBS journalist has not yet been released, according to Reuters.

The news agency reported that a Shi'ite group that had been negotiating the two CBS employees' release had confirmed that the unnamed male Iraqi interpreter had been freed.

Hareth al-Athari, the head of the Basra office of the movement of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, told Reuters the interpreter had been taken to a hotel in the city but that the journalist had not yet been released.

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Original AP Story:
BAGHDAD — A deal has been reached with kidnappers for the release of two CBS News journalists, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Basra said Wednesday.

Harith al-Ethari, a director of al-Sadr's office in the southern Iraqi city, said negotiations had persuaded the kidnappers to release the British journalist and his Iraqi interpreter later Wednesday."We reached an agreement with kidnappers to hand over the Iraqi interpreter to the police command in Basra and the British journalist will be handed over to al-Sadr's office in Basra this afternoon," al-Ethari told The Associated Press. He did not give a specific time.

Iraqi police and witnesses said the two were seized Sunday from a hotel in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

CBS News said Monday that two journalists working for it were missing in Basra, but it did not identify them and has requested their names not be released if obtained.

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has seen fierce fighting between rival Shiite militias as part of a power struggle in the oil-rich south.

Al-Ethari did not identify the kidnappers but said Sadrist mediators had persuaded the kidnappers to drop their demands and release the hostages. He refused to list the original demands ahead of the release.

Earlier, an Iraqi police official in Basra familiar with the negotiations said talks had started at 3 p.m. Tuesday and continued until midnight, then resumed three hours later.

Kidnappings of Westerners and Iraqis _ for political motives or ransom _ were common in the past but have become infrequent recently with a decline in violence.

Since 2004, three journalists _ Fakher Haider of The New York Times, as well as James Brandon of Britain and New York freelancer Steven Vincent _ have been abducted in Basra, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Brandon was released, but Vincent and Haider were murdered, it said.

According to CPJ, at least 51 journalists have been abducted in Iraq since 2004. The New York-based group said the majority was released, but 12 were killed.

CPJ, which has recorded at least 126 journalists killed since the U.S.-led war started in March 2003, also condemned the murder of a 27-year-old Iraqi journalist this week in Baghdad.

The bullet-riddled body of Hisham Michwit Hamdan was found Tuesday, two days after he disappeared after leaving the offices of the Young Journalists League to buy notebooks and pens at a market in the central Baghdad district of Bab al-Mudham.

League chief Haider Hasoun al-Moussawi said Hamdan had joined the independent organization when it was established in 2003 as a media watchdog and had not reported any threats.

Iraqi legislators, meanwhile, were engaged in urgent discussions a day after the speaker of the fragmented parliament threatened to disband the legislature, saying it is so riddled with distrust it appeared unable to adopt the budget or agree on a law setting a date for provincial elections.

Disbanding parliament would prompt new elections within 60 days and further undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's shaky government, which is limping along with nearly half of the 40 Cabinet posts vacant.

The disarray undermines the purpose of last year's influx of U.S. troop _ to bring down violence enough to allow the Iraqi government and parliament to focus on measures to reconcile differences among minority Sunnis and Kurds and the majority Shiites. Violence is down dramatically, but political progress languishes.

Iraq's constitution allows Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the hot-tempered speaker and a member of the minority Sunni faction, to dissolve parliament if one-third of its members request the move and a majority of lawmakers approve. Al-Mashhadani said Tuesday he already had sufficient backing for the move from five political blocs, but he refused to name them.

Al-Mashhadani said the Iraqi treasury had already lost $3 billion by failing to pass a budget before the end of 2007. He did not explain how the money was lost.

He blamed the lack of a budget on Kurdish politicians who have refused to back down from a demand that their regional and semiautonomous government be guaranteed 17 percent of national income.

The 17 percent formula for Kurds was applied to past budgets, but some Sunni and Shiite lawmakers sought to lower it to about 14 percent. The argument is that the Kurdish population is closer to 14 percent of Iraq's total than 17 percent as Kurds insist. There has been no census in decades.

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Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin and AP staff in Basra contributed to this report.