The Mufti of Australia, on a mercy mission to save the life of hostage Mr Wood, is optimistic after discussions with a group of influential religious leaders in Baghdad.

Sheikh Taj Aldin Alhilali said he had met members of the Ulema Committee and they would publish a statement today calling for Douglas Wood’s release.

The Ulema, or Committee of Muslim Scholars, is an influential grouping of Sunni clerics that represents some 3,000 mosques across Iraq and has often mediated the release of foreign hostages.

“I came as a representative of Australia’s Muslim community, which is part of the Australian people, in a bid to save Douglas Wood’s life and release him,” he said.

In video footage released last weekend, a badly bruised Wood, 63, is seen pleading for his life as rifles are pointed at his head.

His captors gave a deadline of 5am (AEST) Tuesday for Australia to begin pulling its troops out of Iraq.

That deadline passed with no word until SBS reported Alhilali as saying the deadline had been extended until 6am (AEST) today.

Alhilali, told SBS radio in Arabic yesterday he had been negotiating Wood’s kidnappers via the Islamic clergy, Iraqi media and other Iraqi people.

“There’s been an extension of that deadline until 12 o’clock midnight (Iraq time),” SBS Arabic radio journalist Majida Abboud-Saab, who interviewed the Sheik.
The Australian government could not confirm the cleric’s claim which was picked up from SBS by Arab news channels and broadcast back into region.

However, in today’s The Sydney Morning Herald, its chief correspondent in Baghdad, Paul McGeough, said he was told by Alhilali the sheik’s only source for the new deadline was a United Arab Emirates army colonel he met during a transit stop in Dubai.

In an interview at his Baghdad hotel, Alhilali told McGeough no one in the Iraqi capital had been able to confirm the new deadline.