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Iraq: Latest Kidnappings Raise Questions About Motives Of Hostage Takers

  • Charles Recknagel

Hostage takers in Iraq have seized another 10 people, including two Indonesian women. The abductions raise anew the question of whether the kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq are mainly for political or financial gain and whether countries should pay ransom to free their citizens.

Prague, 1 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Another militant group says it has kidnapped 10 more people -- including two Indonesian women -- as abductions of foreigners continue in Iraq.

A group previously unknown outside Iraq, calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq: Western Leadership, announced it had taken the hostages in a videotape sent to the Qatar-based Arabic satellite station Al-Jazeera. The group is demanding that the company that employs the captives -- who include two Lebanese and six Iraqis -- stop working with the U.S.-led coalition.

The latest kidnappings come just three days after a different group released two female Italian humanitarian workers who had been held for three weeks. The freeing of the Italian women offered a rare moment of good news since a wave of kidnapping of foreigners began in April. The seizures of people from many nations has continued despite global pleas for kidnappers to end the practice.

One of the Italian hostages, Simona Torretta, underlined the extent of the public's concern over kidnappings as she thanked people for their support in a press conference earlier this week. "I want to thank all the Muslim community in the whole world that I know have expressed their solidarity with us," she said. "In particular, I wish to thank the Iraqi population who were always close to us at this difficult time."
Allawi said militant groups are using the kidnappings for political ends and will continue so long as they get publicity for their cause.


There are conflicting reports of whether the Italian government paid a ransom worth $1 million to free Torretta and her colleague, Simona Pari.

The immediate abduction of 10 more hostages so soon after the Italians' release raises anew the question of what motivates the kidnappers to continue taking foreigners.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said yesterday that militant groups are using the kidnappings for political ends and will continue so long as they get publicity for their cause.

Allawi cited as an example the case of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who remains in captivity after the beheadings of two Americans who were abducted with him. "It is repugnant to take an innocent man such as Kenneth Bigley and to use him as a political pawn in this way. The anguish and pain inflicted on his family and friends are indescribable," Allawi said.

Then, the Iraqi prime minister went on to accuse the media of fanning the crisis by accepting videotapes from the hostage takers and airing them. "Let us not forget that this sort of terrorism depends entirely on publicity," he said. "We therefore need to think long and hard about the way this kidnapping [of Kenneth Bigley] has been covered by the media. A few sober voices have questioned whether the media should itself be feeding the crisis on which it is reporting and asking whether they have consistently behaved responsibly."

Bigley is believed to be held by a group led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born extremist considered by Washington to be associated with Al-Qaeda. His group, Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, wants to expel U.S.-led forces from Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's group killed Bigley's two American associates last month after linking all three men's fate to the release of Iraqi women from coalition-run prisons. The coalition has dismissed the demand as ill-informed, saying it holds only three prominent females who worked on Saddam Hussein's weapons development programs.

The United States has offered a reward of $25 million for the killing or capture of al-Zarqawi. He is believed to have personally decapitated another American hostage, Nicholas Berg, in May.

The United States and Britain have so far refused to negotiate for the release of their nationals taken captive. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said last week that any bargaining with kidnappers only encourages more abductions. Straw spoke after the media aired a videotape of Bigley pleading for the British government to help free him.

"I'm afraid to say [that Bigley's video plea] can't alter the position of the British government and, as I've explained to the family, we can't get into a situation of bargaining with terrorists because this would put many more peoples' lives at risk, not only in Iraq, but around the world," Straw said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeated on 29 September that he will not negotiate but said he would respond to any efforts by the hostage takers to contact his government. But he said that, so far, "they're not in contact with us [and] it's impossible for us to make contact with them."

Most media attention in recent months has focused on the fate of hostages taken by groups making political demands. However, other groups have appeared as much motivated by money as politics.

Several companies in Kuwait and Jordan are reported to have paid ransoms of unspecified amounts to free drivers abducted on Iraq's roads. Often the kidnappers have also required the companies to promise they would stop working with coalition forces in the future.

Some senior Iraqi officials say ransom payment has become common enough that it is both encouraging further abductions of foreigners and pushing up the captors' financial demands. Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, said this month that "the reason for the acceleration in kidnappings is simply because ransoms are being paid, that's it." He added, "You can understand why they pay, but it fuels the problem."

Around 130 foreigners have been seized in Iraq since April. Most of the foreign hostages have been released, but around 30 have been killed.

Since the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein last year, hundreds of wealthy Iraqis have been kidnapped by criminal gangs. The gangs demand ransoms of up to $100,000 and sometimes kill their captives if they consider the amount paid to be too small.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".
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