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Iraq: Kidnappers Preying On Wealthy Locals, Not Just Foreigners

It's not just foreigners being targeted Dozens of foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq over the past few months. Most have been freed. Many are still missing, and at least seven have been killed, including a South Korean who was beheaded by Islamic militants this week. But foreigners are not the only targets of kidnappers in Iraq. Wealthy Iraqis are also becoming victims, and many are paying thousands of dollars in ransom to regain their freedom.

Baghdad, 23 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ali is a wealthy Iraqi businessman who owns several shops and houses in Baghdad and a big farm outside the capital.

Ali was abducted from his home a couple of weeks ago. His kidnappers demanded $60,000 ransom.

Ali says he was shocked to learn how much the kidnappers knew about his personal life, including how much money he had made selling one of his houses during deposed President Saddam Hussein's rule, and in what banks he kept his money.

His family paid the ransom and Ali was released, but not before he was beaten. He says he never reported the kidnapping to the police because he feared he might get into trouble again. Now he wants to leave Iraq as soon as possible. And Ali says he is not the only wealthy Iraqi who wishes to go.

Some antique and jewelry shop owners told RFE/RL they also would like to escape to neighboring Jordan for three or four months. They refuse to say if they have been threatened, but complain about security. They say Iraq is now the worst place to sell their goods because foreigners are either leaving the country themselves or are afraid to visit their shops.

Saadi Muhammad Ahmed, an official in Iraq's Health Ministry, says he is afraid of being kidnapped.

"Of course, I am afraid. Every human being is afraid for his existence. [Kidnappings] existed before but on a very small scale, but it has increased now," Ahmed said.

He says kidnapping has become an easy way for criminals to earn money and that the police are not efficient enough to prevent such crimes. He hopes the situation will change after the transfer of power, when Iraqi police will be handed more responsibility for security.

General Raad Yas Kadir, director of the criminal investigation department of the Baghdad Police, says kidnappings are the crimes his department investigates most frequently. He says the department is currently investigating 24 such cases.

Kadir says this crime is reported all over the capital and that rich people are usually the targets. Although the media concentrates on the kidnapping of foreigners, Kadir says Iraqis are suffering as much, if not more, from this crime.

"People from well-off families are usually kidnapped.,” he says. “They are kidnapped by former prisoners, criminals with low morality released by Saddam Hussein before the liberation of Iraq."
"Of course, I am afraid. Every human being is afraid for his existence."

Kadir acknowledges the possibility that kidnappers are obtaining information about their victims from the archives of Hussein's secret police, but he says in many cases criminals simply get their information from family members, friends, or colleagues.

Kadir says his department detained members of four gangs of kidnappers in Baghdad just this month.

Kadir says police also liberated a man being held captive in a house in southern Baghdad in an operation last week. The kidnappers had demanded $5,000 ransom.

"It has turned out that information that this man had this amount of money was passed to the gang by a careless relative," Kadir says.

Kadir declined to comment about the kidnapping and beheading of 33-year-old South Korean Kim Sun-il.

"First, the kidnapping took place outside our sphere of operation -- it happened outside Baghdad," Kadir says. "And secondly, when foreigners are kidnapped, usually the coalition investigates the cases."

Kadir says his department has an antiterrorism unit that works closely with the U.S.-led coalition.

"We have a counterterrorism unit, and it works with the coalition forces and FBI. We arrested several people with the help of coalition forces, and they were taken by the coalition forces. Most of them are Iraqis. We arrested only [one] Saudi Arab," he says.

Kadir says his department is also tasked with fighting drug trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia-style crime. However, Kadir says such criminal activities do not yet pose significant problems in Iraq.

"Until now, we haven't reached the stage when money laundering, organized crime and criminals coming to sell drugs [are a problem]. We haven't reached this stage. We didn't get any signals about incidents like these. But we have, for example, incidents which happened after the fall of the regime. There were people who robbed banks and started buying houses and farms and buildings. We arrested many of them. We confiscated money, confiscated houses and returned them to the government," Kadir says.

However, Kadir predicts that when the situation in the country stabilizes, organized international crime will reach Iraq.

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