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Iraq: New Surge Of Kidnappings Target Westerners

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

Margaret Hassan's abductors demanded the withdrawal of British troops (AFP) Eleven foreigners and two Iraqi guides were kidnapped in Iraq in recent days in three separate incidents that draw attention to a new string of attacks targeting Westerners in Iraq: five of the victims were Westerners, while another six were Iranian pilgrims. The attention given to the latest incidents is deceiving, however; Iraqis are kidnapped daily across the country -- many are taken for political reasons, while others are held for ransom.

Iraqis were the first targets of kidnappings in the post-Hussein era. In the first months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there were regular media reports of women and children being abducted by what appeared to be common criminals who demanded exorbitant ransoms for their victims' safe return.

Targeting Countries Through Their Citizens

The new attacks against Western aid workers come one year after British aid worker Margaret Hassan was kidnapped and killed by unknown assailants who had demanded in October 2004 that British troops withdraw from Iraq or they would hand her over to the Al-Qaeda-linked group led by fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Iraqi politicians, international media, and clergy condemned the killing of Hassan, who had spent years doing aid work in Iraq.

Soon after the Hassan incident, insurgents set their sights on Iraqi and Western journalists in a series of kidnappings and killings early this year (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 March 2005). The kidnappings were largely seen as an attempt by insurgents to intimidate, as well as influence the media's coverage of the situation in Iraq, with many of the abductions coming in the weeks surrounding the January elections.

In most cases, the hostage takers demanded that troops from the hostage's home country be withdrawn from Iraq. One exception to this was the abduction of French journalist Florence Aubenas, who was kidnapped in January and held for five months. Her abductors made no demands for her release.

Since April, one Egyptian, two Algerian, a Pakistani, and two Moroccan diplomats have been kidnapped and all purportedly killed (in most cases, the bodies were never found) in Iraq – with the exception of the Pakistani, all at the hands of al-Zarqawi's group. The targeting of Middle Eastern diplomats was seen as an attempt by insurgents to prevent Iraq from establishing diplomatic relations with its neighbors.

Taking Officials' Relatives

Political leaders and their relatives have also been targeted in a string of abductions and killings this year. Al-Anbar Governor Raja Nawwaf, his son, and four guards were kidnapped on 9 May; he later died in a U.S. assault on the house where he was being held. The son of his replacement, Ma'mun al-Alwani, was kidnapped on 6 September. Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hasani's brother was kidnapped in Kirkuk on 8 November. Political party leader Tawfiq al-Yasiri was kidnapped on 17 November and released two days later.

Numerous ministry officials have also been targeted in abductions, including Health Ministry official Iman Naji Abd al-Razzaq, who was kidnapped in front of her Baghdad home on 30 July.

Lawyer Sa'dun al-Janabi, who was defending members of Saddam Hussein's regime in the high-profile Al-Dujayl trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005), was kidnapped from his Baghdad office on 20 October and subsequently found dead. Both Sunni and Shi'ite clerics have also been targeted by insurgents.

Fate of Current Hostages Unknown

German archeologist Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver disappeared on 25 November and it is not known where she was abducted. Their captors demanded that Germany cut all relations with Iraq in a videotaped message sent to Germany's ARD television that included footage of Osthoff and her driver blindfolded. The German government has said it will not meet the demand. Osthoff has worked in Iraq since the 1970s. A convert to Islam, she had begun volunteering at hospitals to help Iraqis suffering during and after the war, Reuters quoted family members as saying on 29 November.

According to media reports, Osthoff was threatened by al-Zarqawi's group in October. Following the threat, U.S. troops reportedly flew her from northern Iraq to Baghdad's Green Zone for safety. Her abductors have not identified themselves; al-Zarqawi's group typically identifies itself in video and written statements when it abducts individuals.

Four Westerners associated with the U.S.-based Christian Peacemaker Teams were taken hostage on 26 November by a group identifying itself as the Swords of Righteousness Brigade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2005). The group sent a videotape of the hostages to Al-Jazeera television, calling the aid workers "spies working under the cover of Christian peace activists." A Quaker aid group, the Christian Peacemaker Teams have worked in Iraq since October 2002.

Meanwhile, six Iranian pilgrims and their Iraqi guide were kidnapped on 28 November near Balad and released 24 hours later.
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