Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric has called for the release of a group of Qatari hunters kidnapped in the south of the country last week.
"We condemn the kidnappings for political goals, including the recent kidnapping of a number of hunters who entered the country legally," said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, speaking through an aide in a sermon broadcast on state TV on December 25.
Iraq's foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said on December 22 that his government had nothing to do with the kidnapping of 26 hunters, which include members of the royal family.
It is common for wealthy hunters from Persian Gulf states to travel to Iraq's southern desert at this time of the year in search of rare prey.
The Iraqi desert is said to be one of the best remaining hunting grounds for the Houbara bustard, a large, fast bird.