July 29, 2004 – Even an aide to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi admits that the current wave of kidnappings sweeping Iraq is drawing more attention to the countryâ€™s perilous security conditions and embarrassing Allawiâ€™s US-backed interim government. But there is disagreement as to who the perpetrators are and what exactly is driving the upswing in hostage-taking, although there appears to be no shortage of speculation.
George Sada, a spokesperson for Allawi, told the New York Times that each new kidnapping is being turned into an extremely visible statement by the abductors: Iraq is a dangerous place to live and work. "Of course, they are embarrassing the government by these acts," Sada said.
Since taking office a month ago, Allawi has launched several initiatives aimed at quelling the anti-occupation insurgency and cracking down on street crime. He increased the presence of Iraqi security forces working with US-led troops and offered to rehire many former soldiers from Saddam Husseinâ€™s army to beef up Iraqâ€™s armed forces. Two weeks ago, Allawiâ€™s administration also conducted a massive police sweep through Baghdad, arresting more than 500 suspected criminals, the Times reported.
Kidnappers do not appear to have taken notice of Allawiâ€™s measures, nor do they appear to be deterred by the presence of 138,000 US troops and tens of thousands of mercenaries hired to provide security for private contractors and government officials in Iraq.
Since early spring, an estimated 70 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq, according to the Associated Press. In one recent seven-day period alone (July 20 and July 27), at least twelve foreign workers were kidnapped, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
Statements by a recently released hostage, as well as comments from several hostage negotiators and civilian analysts, suggest the abductions are being carried out by a wide range of groups using a variety of tactics and occasionally making disparate demands. The BBC reports that some six different groups have claimed responsibility for dozens of kidnappings in recent months.
Last Friday, for example, a group calling itself the "Lions of Allah Brigade" abducted Mohammed Mamdouh Qutb, an Egyptian diplomat, in broad daylight as he walked out of a Baghdad mosque, reports Reuters. The abduction appeared to be carefully timed to coincide with a visit to Egypt by Allawi. According to Reuters, the Egyptian government had been considering a move to send security forces to Iraq.
After three days, kidnappers released Qutb, who told reporters his captors wanted to "deliver a message" to the Egyptian government that they did not approve of Egyptian officials receiving Allawi. "They saw that this message was delivered and thatâ€™s why they released me," Qutb, who claimed that his captors treated him well, told Reuters.
One day after Qutbâ€™s abduction, several men in Iraqi police uniforms kidnapped Raad Adnan at a fake checkpoint they had set up in an affluent Baghdad neighborhood, the Independent reports.
But whereas Qutb is a foreigner, Adnan is an Iraqi. He serves as a high-ranking official with the Al-Mansour Contracting Company, an Iraqi government owned firm that carries out construction work for Iraqi ministries. Adnan is also a former Baâ€™ath Party member who helped build some of Saddam Husseinâ€™s palaces, according to the Independent.
Qutbâ€™s kidnappers were apparently quick to identify themselves and issue specific political statements related to the US-led occupation, but Adnanâ€™s captors have been silent. At press time, they had not made any public demands or issued any statements regarding Adnanâ€™s condition.
Circumstances surrounding another recent kidnapping also appear to illustrate the marked difference in tactics and demands between militant groups.
Last week, one day after a group calling itself the Islamic Army released Filipino hostage Angelo de la Cruz, kidnappers abducted seven foreign truck drivers working for a Kuwaiti transportation company. Like de la Cruz, all are underprivileged workers who came to Iraq in search of a well paying job.
But unlike de la Cruz, who was released after the government of the Philippines heeded popular pressure and agreed to withdraw its small contingent of 51 troops from Iraq, the seven new hostages are from countries that have not sent any troops to Iraq: three are from India, three are from Kenya and another is from Egypt.
In recent days, transportation workers from Pakistan and Jordan, other countries not militarily involved in Iraq, have also reportedly been abducted.
Kenyans are stunned by the kidnappings of their fellow citizens.
"Kenya has no troops in the Gulf," noted the East African Standard, a Nairobi-based newspaper, in a July 23 editorial headlined "Spare Kenyans, we were not in the war."
"Kenya did not take sides in the war that saw the US and its allies... invade Iraq against the counsel of the UN Security Council," the editorial also commented as it called for the immediate release of the workers.
In a videotaped message broadcast last week on the Al-Arabiya television network, the kidnappers, who identified themselves as "The Holders of the Black Banners," said they would execute the hostages unless the Kuwaiti firm for which they work disbanded its operations in Iraq. In a second videotaped message, the kidnappers demanded that the Kuwaiti company pay damages to the families of those killed by US-led forces in the city of Fallujah, and they called for the release of all Iraqis detained in Kuwaiti and US-run prisons, the Washington Post reports.
United Press International reports that the same kidnappers have also demanded that the Kenyan, Egyptian and Indian governments withdraw all of their citizens currently working in Iraq. Such a demand may indicate that the kidnappers want to bring the few ongoing reconstruction projects in Iraq to a halt, further crippling Iraqâ€™s economy. India alone may have well over 5,000 workers in Iraq, performing mostly menial tasks for low wages, while Egypt likely has thousands more workers there. A sudden withdrawal could seriously undermine the already imperiled rebuilding effort.
On a different track, a New York Times article observes that truck drivers maintain the major supply routes in Iraq, transporting not only construction materials and consumer goods but also bringing supplies to US troops in many cases. Given this, and considering the apparent ease with which kidnappers can block roadways, even truck drivers from countries with no connection to the US-led occupation might be seen as both easy and valuable targets, the Times suggests.
But an Indian government official who has monitored negotiations with the kidnappers of the seven truck drivers says their bold, far-reaching demands -- which appear impossible for the contractor and the three governments to meet -- indicate that the kidnappers are not seriously targeting the Iraqi political system or its economy.
According to the BBC, Indiaâ€™s External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh said the kidnappers "do not appear to be associated with any political group." He added, "They appear to be irresponsible people who take such steps for money."
Irresponsible or not, Singh said that his government was seriously negotiating with the kidnappers in an effort to win the release of its citizens, the BBC reports.
Civilian hostage negotiators interviewed by BBC News Online say there may even be a connection between local criminal gangs that specialize in kidnapping affluent Iraqis and their children -- a problem that negotiators say has reached epidemic proportions -- and militant fundamentalist groups holding foreign workers.
According to Canon Andrew White, head of a group in Iraq working with religious and tribal leaders to win the release of hostages, small-time Iraqi criminals appear to be kidnapping foreign workers who are then "sold up the chain" to larger criminal networks or groups of Islamic militants.
"Most of the hostage-takers are small-time bandits trying to get quick cash," White told the BBC. Selling a valued foreigner to fundamentalists can bring a high price, White suggests.
Although they may not share the same motivations or goals, such bandits could actually be serving as foot soldiers for Islamic fundamentalists who later display the hostages in front of video cameras while making their demands.
Whatever the background of the kidnappers, the BBCâ€™s sources agree hostage-taking will likely continue to be a popular weapon in Iraq, especially if security remains poor and more governments and contractors agree to meet kidnappersâ€™ demands.
"The dangerous thing is that kidnappers are beginning to see demands being met, and this will only encourage more groups to take hostages," White said.
Others have been more adamant, arguing that governments or contractors who agree to kidnappersâ€™ demands are aiding them and further destabilizing the country.
Australiaâ€™s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, this week strongly criticized the government of the Philippines for withdrawing its troops, saying the move had "empowered" terrorists and prompted the latest round of abductions, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
In response, Norberto Gonzalez, the National Security Adviser of the Philippines, suggested that criticizing his government for protecting its workers and soldiers was "narrow minded," the Daily Star, a Lebanese paper, reports.
Instead of criticizing his government, Gonzalez argued, Australia and other members of the Coalition that invaded Iraq should re-examine why violence has intensified there in recent months despite military and political efforts to suppress it.