The Kidnap Capital of the World

by PATRICK COCKBURN



Baghdad.

Iraq is becoming the kidnap capital of the world, though this gets international attention only when foreigners are taken hostage.

It is the one growth industry in the country. Nobody is safe. "We had one case recently where the kidnappers seized a three-year-old," said Sabah Kadhim, a senior official at the interior ministry in Baghdad.

Most kidnap victims are Iraqis and the motive is always money. Many well-off Iraqis have fled to Jordan or Syria. "I just don’t make enough money in Iraq to take the risk of being taken hostage," a businessman who had moved to Amman said. Doctors are a frequent target and many of the best-qualified have gone abroad.

Mr Khadim says he is convinced the motive for kidnapping the two Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torreta, now freed, was always money.

"The kidnappers are not stupid," he says. "They could see Italy was part of the coalition but the war was very unpopular there. They knew that if they kidnapped women this would generate publicity, and this means more money in ransom."

Only a few kidnappings are political, probably including that of Kenneth Bigley, the British engineer, held by the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The Jordanian-born militant has discovered that as a way to attract the world’s attention, horrific videos of captives being beheaded or pleading for their life are difficult to beat. Unlike commercial kidnappers, few of Zarqawi’s victims are known to have survived.

The wave of kidnappings started soon after the fall of Baghdad last year. Criminals, many released by Saddam Hussein just before the invasion, found it was an easy way to make money with almost no fear of punishment. Some gangs have their own dungeons so they can handle several victims at once.

The police admit they do not know how many people are being kidnapped because relatives or friends of victims think it is dangerous to tell them. People also think the police are paid by kidnap gangs.

One man, who turned down an offer of police assistance in getting back his business partner, had a phone call from the kidnappers 30 minutes later complimenting him on his discretion.

The hostage-takers are often cruel. One 22-year-old student called Ali was left in a room by himself for three days without food or water. Later, he met two other victims, both young men, held by the same gang. One day, a man came in and shot one victim in the head. Negotiations with his family had failed.

Months ago, the kidnappers realised they could make even more money seizing foreigners. Word spread that a Kuwaiti company had paid $100,000 each for the return of several employees. Before, the kidnappers had thought taking foreigners could cause them trouble, but as the strength of the US occupation ebbed over the past six months, expatriates became fair game.

It is impossible to draw a line between commercial and political kidnappings. This is because kidnappers whose only aim is to make money often pretend to be fighting the occupation. Iraqi security men, who have not had much success against kidnappers, tracked one gang which had seized a Lebanese man. In their hideout the police found banners with religious and political slogans.

The head of the gang said they were to be used as a backdrop if they made a video of their victim, in the hope that it would be shown on television. "If you can get a kidnap on television, you can make more money," the gang leader said.

Kidnapping foreigners also became easier after the Sunni Muslim uprising in April. Fallujah and most of Anbar province in western Iraq, stayed in rebel hands. Insurgents also control towns south of Baghdad, including Latafiyah, Mahmouiyah and Iskandariyah, a large no-go area for Iraqi government forces where hostages can be concealed.

This was where the two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, were kidnapped on 20 August.

Commercial and political kidnappings are likely to continue because they are successful. But the pool of available kidnap victims is now small. This puts foreigners in greater danger.

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