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What could break the hostage-taking cycle

As Turkish and Kuwaiti firms back out of Iraq, experts say Iraqis themselves should fill more risky civilian jobs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2004



WASHINGTON

Nothing breeds repetition like "success."

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Indeed, with private companies hit by Iraq's wave of kidnappings pulling out, and with insurgents and foreign terrorists in Iraq receiving global attention, no one expects the hostage-taking to end anytime soon.

Already this week, the association of Turkish trucking companies - whose trucks provide a crucial lifeline for Iraq's tenuous economy - responded to the videotaped killing of one of its drivers by announcing its members would no longer deliver to American clients in Iraq, including the military. And a Kuwaiti trucking firm announced it would no longer operate in Iraq after one of its Somali drivers was kidnapped.

Yet even if the insurgents and terrorists have found a winning tactic for now, Iraq and its supporters may be able to turn the tide by putting more Iraqis in these risky civilian jobs, some specialists say. Aside from giving the local economy a boost by alleviating unemployment, putting more Iraqis in those jobs could fortify the public against terrorists.

Just as the Saudis turned tough when their own civilians were targeted in bombings, Iraqis would be expected to take more than a passing interest in kidnappings if they hit their own people, some experts say.

"Normally you would call it a successful tactic if one country or company out of 20 targeted was pulling out, but these guys are doing much better than that. They are doing great," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and Middle East specialist. "But if they start to kidnap Iraqis, then I think we could see things turn quickly - just as some of their other attacks on Iraqis are starting to backfire."

The fierce widespread rejection of Sunday's bombings targeting Iraq's small but historic and well-integrated Christian community offers a glimpse of how the country might react if Iraqis were the victims of high-profile hostage-taking, Mr. Peters says. "The fact is that the Iraqi people really didn't mind too much when Americans were the ones dying in these kinds of incidents," he says, referring to the gruesome burnings and beheading of American contract workers earlier this year. "But just as we saw the Saudi people react when attacks were suddenly being perpetrated against their own people, I think we'd see the same reaction from Iraqis."

US companies looking for subcontracting trucking companies to deliver the goods coming into a rebuilding Iraq have primarily turned to foreign companies in Kuwait and Turkey. Kuwaiti subcontractors employ large numbers of foreign drivers, from Africa and southeast Asia - some of whom have complained of being forced to do the dangerous driving in Iraq.

Although Turkey has no troops as part of the US-led coalition in Iraq, the NATO member country does allow the US to land at military bases. That, plus the vital commercial link Turkey provides, makes its citizens a key target.

"The people who are going to be most affected by these tactics are those from countries whose governments chose to back the US in Iraq, or to cooperate with it, against popular opinion at home," says Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The Turkish population was almost unanimous in opposition to the US war in Iraq and remains overwhelmingly opposed to any cooperation between the US and the Turkish government in Iraq, polls show.

Mr. Peña says the hostage-taking is likely to continue, not just because it is yielding results, but also because American targets are becoming more difficult to hit. "The more the US fortifies itself and reduces its exposure, and the more these civilian targets are exposed, the more the perpetrators are going to pursue the softer targets," he says.

The continuing instability is a reflection of insufficient security forces for the strength of the insurgency and terrorists, some US military and political leaders insist. Yet Iraqi forces are growing and beginning to show some signs of cohesive action in the new Iraq's defense, "and that success will be reinforcing," says Peters.

One proposal for boosting foreign security forces in Iraq until Iraqis can do more on their own is coming out of Saudi Arabia. The plan touted by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is to form a contingent of soldiers from Islamic countries not bordering Iraq, in part to reduce the need for US forces. US response to the plan has been cool, in part because it calls for the Muslim force to operate under United Nations auspices.

But even without those complexities, the idea is not considered a cure for Iraq's violence by some experts. They note that bombers and kidnappers have shown no willingness to shy away from particular nationalities or religious populations. That suggests Muslim soldiers would be seen as much as other foreigners as being in Iraq to support the US-led coalition and thus would be just as much the "enemy."

As radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in a sermon last Friday condemning the Saudi proposal, "Even if they are Islamic and friendly, if they come to Iraq that means they are cooperating with the occupiers. Thus they will be considered occupiers, too."

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