Qasim Sabty, a painter who owns the Hewar art gallery in Baghdad, is scared. “So many of my relatives have been kidnapped that I fear I am going to be next,” he says. He mentions the name of another gallery owner who had to pay kidnappers $100,000 (lbs60,000) for the return of her grandson.
Fear of kidnap is pervasive in Baghdad. Mr Sabty is not a particularly wealthy man but kidnapping comes at the top of his list of reasons why he feels insecure. He said: “You feel lucky if your son goes to school in the morning and comes back safe in the evening.”
Kidnap is now so common new words have been added to Iraqi thieves’ slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep and the person who identifies a potential target to kidnappers is called al-alaas.
Suicide bombs and battles between US troops and militias get the attention of the outside world. But the chronic sense of insecurity felt by Iraqis is almost equally the result of the impact of violent crime.
At the headquarters of the Iraqi police serious crime organisation, Lieutenant-Colonel Farouk Mahmoud, the deputy head of the 40-member kidnap squad, said criminals turned to kidnapping as highly profitable and almost risk-free. He says: “Their favourite targets are doctors and businessmen. In 95 per cent of cases, the kidnappers have been tipped off by somebody close to the victim such as a friend or an assistant.”
Usually the family of the hostage is told to call a Thuraya satellite phone number. The failure of the US security forces to help Iraqi police track a Thuraya call is a major source of complaint among the officers. “They gave us the information only once,” Col Mahmoud says. “We found the house where the kidnappers were immediately though the victim, a doctor for whom $10,000 was being asked, had been killed already.”
But the kidnap squad does have its successes. One day an informer told Major Abdel Karim to look in a house in the town of Salman Pak south-east of Baghdad. “We found two men bound and gagged,” Major Mahmoud says. “There was a whole family of kidnappers who owned a farm.” He shows a photograph of the two victims, one elderly with white hair and the other dark-haired and much younger, surrounded by the triumphant officers of the police kidnap squad.
Not all kidnaps end happily. In one case, the daughter of a businessman was taken hostage. During talks about her release, her brother shot dead the kidnapper’s negotiator. A few days later the girl’s head was returned in a sack. With horror stories like this making the rounds it is not surprising that many Iraqi exiles who returned after the fall of Saddam Hussein have now disappeared. “I am making a little money but not enough to justify this sort of risk,” one told me.
It is not known how many kidnaps there are every month. Many are never reported to the police.
One man asked Major Mahmoud if he had equipment to track a Thuraya phone call. When he was told he did not, he said: “In that case, I will handle this kidnapping myself.”
Asked how an Iraqi businessman should try to avoid being kidnapped Major Mahmoud says brightly, to laughter from other officers: “Go abroad.” If this is not possible, they should conceal the fact that they have money, watch those who work for them and vary their routine.
Not surprisingly, many wealthy Iraqis decided the safest course is to move with their families to Jordan. Kidnapping is not the only threat. The son of one of the richest men in Baghdad was attacked in his car by gunmen a few weeks ago and the vehicle was riddled. His wife and son were killed. It is still unclear who wanted to assassinate him but the random violence is similar to that in parts of Russia in the early 1990s. The difference is that in Iraq there is also the danger of being killed by the insurgents or the notoriously trigger-happy American troops.
Being poor in Iraq is no defence against crime. In the heart of Baghdad, within sight of the heavily fortified Green Zone where the Coalition Provisional Authority has its headquarters, buses are robbed by street gangs every day. Ali Abdul Jabber, a driver at the al-Nasser bus terminal, has watched his passengers being robbed three times. He said: “On the last occasion, the thieves jumped on board because the doors have to be open in this hot weather. Two of them stood guard at the back while two others walked down the bus looking in people’s bags and stealing money and jewellery.”
Mr Jabber says: “The whole experience left me shaking, not with fear but with anger. I tried not to glance back at them in case they might think I could identify them and kill me. When they saw me glancing at them in the mirror they told me to look away.”
After the robbery, nobody went to the police. “The passengers didn’t even discuss it among themselves because this sort of thing is so much part of daily life in Baghdad,” Mr Jabber adds. He thought that most of them believed he was in league with the gang.
The dangerous anarchy of everyday life is one reason why Iraqis are so hostile to the occupation. Even the kidnap squad officers did not have a good word to say for it. Iraqi criminals are in a confident mood.
In Nassariyah last week, a gang stole a truck with four cows in it. They demanded a ransom of one million dinars (lbs360) but added that the cows were voracious eaters and their owner would have to pay a further 50,000 dinars for food they had consumed if he wanted to see his animals again.