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Abductions surge in Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2004


In the past week, car bombings and other insurgent attacks against US and Iraqi forces have returned to pre-June 28 handover levels. But kidnapping, too, is emerging as one of the most effective weapons for eroding confidence in the interim Iraqi government and slowing reconstruction.

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The low-cost and low-risk tactic is being used to barter lives for political goals.

Such blackmail has already driven the Philippines and a number of private contractors, including Russian and Turkish firms, from the country. It is also driving up security and insurance costs for companies doing everything from fixing Iraq's sewers to providing mail service to US troops, leaving far less money for the infra- structure improvements that Iraq so desperately needs.

"People here are demanding improvements in basic services, water, and electricity, not to mention jobs,'' says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "They're not seeing any improvements, so the prospects for instability and violence go up."

It's a simple, ugly cycle that neither the US nor its Iraqi partners have been able to break.

Carefully targeted violence disrupts contracting work, slowing the pace of reconstruction and driving up costs. As the restoration of basic services like power and water is stalled, the pool of dissatisfied Iraqis willing to participate in the insurgency grows.

"These tactics to me point to a machine that not only knows Iraqi society and when and where to strike, but to people who have a political objective - and part and parcel of their objective is stopping development work,'' says Isam al-Khafaji, director of Iraq Revenue Watch, which tracks US spending here. "This is why so little has been spent. So far, they're winning."

Mr. Khafaji says increasing insurgent activity in towns like Ramadi, Samara, and Baqubah, - all in the Sunni triangle - are signs that the "get tough" approach promised by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi may be backfiring.

Violence against contractors and government officials has been rising since last year, but the latest round of kidnappings has likely been boosted by the Philippines' decision to withdraw its 50-man military contingent from Iraq to save the life of Filipino trucker Angelo de la Cruz, who was released last Tuesday.

Since then, at least 13 new hostages have been taken, including the head of an Iraqi government construction company, two Jordanian truck drivers, an Egyptian diplomat, and eight foreign contractors.

On Friday, Mohammed Qutb, the third-highest official at the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad, was kidnapped in Baghdad by a group calling itself the "Lions of God Battalion" while leaving a mosque after evening prayers. This occurred as Mr. Allawi embarked on a trip in which he has urged Egypt and other Arab states to contribute troops to the Iraq effort.

Mr. Qutb had led hostage negotiations earlier this month that led to the release of an Egyptian truck driver in exchange for a pledge from his Saudi employer to leave Iraq, and pictures of him greeting the freed hostage were widely printed in Iraq.

"There is no way to budge to terrorists and give them what they want," Allawi said Sunday in Damascus, Syria, the AP reported. "The only way to deal with terrorism is to promote justice and to close ranks, and we hope Egypt and the Egyptian government will act accordingly." Egypt has promised it will not send troops to Iraq.

Last week, three Kenyans, three Indians, and an Egyptian working as truck drivers for Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport, were taken hostage by a group calling itself the "Holders of the Black Banners," which in videotaped statement threatened to behead one hostage every 72 hours - with the first victim to be killed Monday evening - if the company didn't pull out of Iraq.

On Monday, the group said it was delaying its murder plans to give negotiations more time. The company says it is committed to bringing the men to safety but hasn't promised to pull out yet.