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Iraq: Security Concerns Rule Daily Life In Baghdad

  • Charles Recknagel --> When there is news of kidnappings in Iraq, it usually focuses on militants taking hostages and threatening to kill them unless foreign governments or businesses pull out of the country. But there are many other kinds of kidnappings as well, including the one that ordinary Iraqis fear most: the abduction of their family members for ransom.

Prague, 30 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite has been to Baghdad several times since U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in April last year.

During that time, Mite said, daily life in the city has dramatically changed -- both for visiting foreigners and for ordinary Iraqis.

Mite said that over the last six months, the city has become a lonely place to visit.

"The situation now has radically changed. You don't feel safe anymore. Last time [in December] there were places where you can go, you can drink coffee, you feel safe," Mite said. "It was possible to see Westerners buying in shops, Westerners drinking coffee. And now, not at all. There are no Westerners outside."

He said that those Westerners, such as journalists, who have to work in the streets do so with extreme caution and, increasingly, with private security guards. The journalists' guards are former soldiers from the United States, Europe, or South Africa and are armed with pistols and automatic rifles. The sight can be eerie for passersby.

"Even the journalists who are doing their reporting are guarded. I saw a TV crew taking an interview from one Iraqi in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street," Mite said. "The journalists were in bullet-proof vests and they had two armed guards beside them. And this poor Iraqi was answering the questions as if he was being questioned by some military people."
"It was possible to see Westerners buying in shops, Westerners drinking coffee." -- Valentinas Mite

Major public buildings, hotels, and even the compounds of private business are ringed with barbed wire and sandbags and patrolled by heavily armed guards. Important sites are further protected by barriers of tall, vertical, concrete slabs to shield them from bomb blasts. The towering blast shields can extend so far down both sides of some key avenues that driving along them like passing through long tunnels.

For foreigners, and for many Iraqis, the greatest fear today is kidnapping. The kidnappers can be insurgent groups seeking hostages to use as bargaining chips in demanding foreign governments or businesses leave Iraq. Or they can be groups of criminals preying on ordinary Iraqis for money.

Mite said that fear of kidnapping and extortion has become commonplace among prosperous and middle-class Iraqis as every day brings news of new abductions for ransom.

"Many ordinary Iraqis are kidnapped. Their kids are kidnapped or they themselves are kidnapped. And not for political reasons but because they have money. And usually [the families] do not go to the police, they just pay the money and they want to be left alone," Mite said. "And some of the richer people go to live abroad. I know a family of three brothers, they had a shop in Mansour [neighborhood], in central Baghdad. I didn't find them now, they are living in Amman because they don't want troubles. And the trouble that can happen is your being taken away and [your family being] asked for some $50,000, or $10,000, it depends. They know how much you can pay."

Mite said the widespread prevalence of kidnappings and other crime is attributed by many Iraqis to former President Saddam Hussein's release of thousands of criminals from the country's jail prior to the war last year -- an act whose motives were never explained. Mite said that, at the same time, the upheavals of the war and subsequent occupation have created new criminals who see investing in an assault rifle as the fastest way to make money in a society still struggling to reestablish its own police and security forces.

The high rate of kidnappings, murder, and theft have led some ordinary Iraqis to go about armed themselves. And it has created a frustrated and overwhelmed police force that sees jails being filled but little reduction in the crime rate.

Mite cited the story of one Baghdad hotel professional who was recently confronted by bandits trying to steal his car as a measure of the mood in the city.

"Some people were trying to take his car and he was armed," Mite said. "And he didn't let them take his car and he even managed to take one of the attackers to the police station. The police officer gave him a bullet and said 'now, I am a police officer, I've given you this bullet, take this criminal on the top of a bridge and do you know what. The jails are full.'"

At night, the city's residents stay indoors and by day they limit their -- and their family members' -- activities to the necessary.

Among foreigners, the self-limits are even more severe. Many spend weeks at a time holed up in their hotels. There they communicate with others in the city by telephone or by sending out Iraqi employees to gather the information they need.

Mite said that the sense of isolation many visitors to Baghdad now feel is only heightened by the fact that today few arrive or leave by road, as was common a few months ago. As robberies and kidnappings have made many roads out of the capital risky, foreign civilians almost entirely leave and arrive by daily flights to and from Jordan.

The flights themselves are hair-raising. As the Jordanian aircraft -- piloted and crewed by South Africans -- leave Baghdad airport, they ascend in a tight corkscrew maneuver to avoid possible insurgent fire. The sudden, dizzying ascent continues until the plane is high above the city and only then do the passengers' security concerns finally drift away.