One Briton and two Americans were kidnapped early yesterday from their house in an affluent suburb of Baghdad in a well-organised operation which highlights the risks to foreign civilians working in an increasingly unstable Iraq.
More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in the past 18 months, of whom 25 have been murdered and 17 are still missing.
Yesterday’s abduction took place at dawn when a group of 10 masked raiders drove in a mini-van into a quiet street in the al-Mansour district of Baghdad, stopping near a nondescript two-storey grey concrete house with iron bars on the windows.
The three men, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, both American, and a Briton who has yet to be named, who worked for a Middle Eastern construction firm, had taken few security measures despite the risks to foreigners.
The kidnappers were well organised and well informed and appear to have had an exact knowledge of their targets’ movements. At about 6am one of the Westerners came out of the iron gates of the house to start a large yellow generator standing on the pavement. The kidnappers grabbed him and then entered the house through the open gate.
“I heard screaming from inside the house early in the morning at about 6am,” said Bahir Salim, a neighbour.
The contractors had no armed guards, said Suha Muoayed, another neighbour, who recalled that “they had a guard in the past but he went away after they were threatened in May”. She said everybody was aware that the house was used by contractors who parked two four-wheel-drive cars outside.
After seizing the first man in the street the kidnappers caught another in the small garden of the house and the third inside. Some of the kidnappers stayed on guard in the street. Mrs Muoayed said they behaved courteously. When an old man walked past on his way to the green-domed mosque a few hundred yards away, one of the men said: “Haji, go on your way and don’t look back.” A woman who started to shout was politely told to keep quiet and go into her house.
Some neighbours, noticing the men in the street, thought they might be car thieves. But in Baghdad, where even petty thieves carry guns, local people were unlikely to interfere. In some parts of Mansour, where there are embassies and political leaders have homes, there are many police and private security guards, but not in this quiet residential middle-class street. Suhad Hassan, another neighbour, said that she heard strange voices inside the contractors’ house, with one man exclaiming in Iraqi Arabic Khalik hady’a – keep quiet” and another saying “Yala shela – lift him.” A few moments later the kidnappers drove off in one of the contractors’ cars. No shots were fired during the abduction, although police later said they found weapons inside the house.
The kidnapping demonstrates the chronic insecurity in Iraq, which has led the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to doubt if elections can be held in Iraq next January as pledged by the US.
The motive for the kidnapping remained unknown yesterday evening. Although it is the abduction of foreigners that attracts international attention, there has been a wave of kidnappings of well-off Iraqis for money over the past 18 months. Many businessmen and professional people such as doctors and lawyers have fled to Jordan and Syria. It may be that kidnap gangs have discovered that they can make more money kidnapping foreigners.
Iraq has developed a kidnap industry similar to that in Chechnya during the second half of the 1990s. The kidnappers are increasingly confident and operate in the heart of Baghdad.
The nationality and political sympathies of the victims make little difference. Two Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torreta, both 29, who had devoted their lives to helping schools and water projects in Iraq, were kidnapped from their office in the centre of the capital on 7 September. The gang that snatched them was large and operated in broad daylight.
Two French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, one of them an old friend of this correspondent, were kidnapped last month by a group demanding that France drop a ban on the wearing of headscarves in school. They are still being held.
Most of the foreigners abducted in recent months are truck drivers or people looking for a job. Some two dozen have been killed, most because they could not pay a ransom.
The Iraqi police and security forces are not in a position to rescue kidnap victims, and many Iraqis believe that the police are themselves infiltrated. One Iraqi businessman who turned down a covert offer of police assistance in looking for his brother received a phone call from the kidnappers soon afterwards congratulating him on his discretion.
The kidnapping yesterday may provoke a further exodus of Westerners. This is economically damaging since the US occupation authorities last year decided to channel reconstruction aid through some 15 American prime contractors, who can only operate now from inside the relative safety of the Green Zone.
* The body of a man believed to be a Westerner was found last night near the town of Samarra, north of Baghdad. Police said the person may have been dead for some time.
FOREIGNERS KILLED OR CAPTURED
Since April, 17 foreigners have been captured in Iraq who it is thought are still being held hostage:
16 Sept: Two Americans and one Briton abducted from a Baghdad house
7 Sept: Two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, and two Iraqi men kidnapped from their villa
21 Aug: French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were kidnapped along with their interpreter. Kidnappers initially demanded repeal of French headscarf law and have since asked for ransom
14 Aug: Durmus Kumdereli, Turkish
6 Aug: Tahsin Top, Turkish
4 Aug: Fereidoun Jahani, Iranian
29 July: Ali Ahmed Mousa, Somali
27 June: Ivailo Kepov, Bulgarian
5 June: A group called Waqas Islamic Brigade says it captured Saad Saadoun, a Kuwaiti lorry driver taking supplies to US troops
12 April: Wael Mamduh, a Jordanian, abducted in Basra
9 April: American contract lorry drivers Timothy Bell and William Bradley last seen after attack on their convoy
8 April: Mohammed Rifat, Canadian
There have been 25 known executions of foreigners:
5 Sept: Nasser Juma, Egyptian
31 Aug: 12 unnamed Nepalese workers at a Jordanian construction company. One beheaded and 11 shot in head. Video of killings posted on Islamist website
26 Aug: Enzo Baldoni, Italian journalist, captured by militants who said they killed him because Italy refused to withdraw troops from Iraq
10 Aug: Mohammed Mutawalli, Egyptian, killed, according to Islamist website posting
5 Aug: Osman Alisan, Turkish, according to Islamist website
2 Aug: Murat Yuce, Turkish, killed, according to Islamist website
28 July: Pakistanis Sajjad Naeem and Raja Azad Khan
13 July: Georgi Lazov, Bulgarian, killed by militants in Tawhid and Jihad groups
28 June: Keith Matthew Maupin, American soldier. Al-Jazeera reports killing but no official US confirmation
22 June: Kim Sun-il, South Korean businessman, kidnapped in Fallujah. Beheaded by captors
12 June: Hussein Ali Alyan, Lebanese
11 May: Nick Berg, American civilian missing since 9 April, killed. Islamist webiste shows beheading
14 April: Fabrizio Quattrocchi, Italian