Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali’s mercy mission from Sydney comes with less than 24 hours remaining in the hostage takers’ deadline.

On Saturday morning new images released by Islamic militants holding Mr Wood showed him shaven-headed and with black eyes, demanding Australia withdraw its forces from Iraq within 72 hours.

Australia has 920 troops in and around the country and that number will increase by a further 450 by mid-May.

The Australian government has again said it won’t give in to the demands.

After meeting with Mr Wood’s brothers over the weekend, Sheik Alhilali filmed an appeal to the kidnappers which has already been screened on Arabic television networks.

In the video, the mufti told the militants he valued their jihad and their efforts, but described their 63-year-old captive as an innocent man.

But the choice of the word “jihad” has drawn criticism.

Some senior Australian Iraqis say some of his words, which seemed to sympathise with the hostage-takers, were offensive, as many average Iraqis have lost their lives due to kidnapping.

Sheik Alhilali, a Sunni Muslim like the suspected kidnappers, has been in contact with Sunni scholars in Iraq. He’s expected to arrive in Baghdad on Tuesday.

The family of Mr Woods received further good news, with an influential Iraqi-based cleric speaking out against the kidnapping.

A spokesman for the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called the hostage-taking “criminal.”

Grand Ayatollah Sistani is the official religious leader of Iraqi Shiites and the most respected scholar in the holy city of Najaf.

“We as clerics condemn this criminal act. We as Muslims, Shiite and Sunni, condemn it. All religions of (our) Iraqi beloved country condemn this act,” Adel Al Zirgani told the Associated Press.

However, it was not clear whether a plea from his aide would have an effect on the militants.