Abductions in Iraq a big business

Groups tied to Abu Musab Zarqawi claim a major car bombing Tuesday, taking Westerners as hostages.

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When a disciplined group of uniformed men kidnapped two Italian aid workers and their two Iraqi assistants from their Baghdad office earlier this month - only to have an Islamic group claim the kidnapping hours later - it confirmed what Iraqi officials say they have suspected for months.

Kidnapping in Iraq has become not only a political tool but big business, with crime gangs often made up of elements from the former intelligence service and military believed to be selling their victims to extremist groups more interested in making an ideological point.

The number of foreigners kidnapped in high-profile cases in Iraq has soared past 100, with two dozen of those having been killed. On Monday, the Australian embassy announced it had received claims of a highway kidnapping of two Australians and two East Asians - with a 24-hour deadline for the 850 Australian troops in Iraq to begin leaving the country.

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Tuesday the purported Australian kidnappings - still unconfirmed by press time - were overshadowed by a massive car bombing in central Baghdad that killed at least 47 people. The bombing, outside a police station receiving new applicants, took place on busy Haifa Street - the same street where on Sunday 15 people died after a US convoy was attacked.

The Zarqawi connection

But the recent upsurge in bloodshed on Baghdad's streets and at least some of the kidnappings of foreigners appear to have one thing in common: the Islamic extremist group Tawhid and Jihad, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda's mastermind in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

US military officials say that Mr. Zarqawi's operations are headquartered in the Sunni Triangle hot spot of Fallujah - where the US carried out a major airstrike Monday on what it called a Zarqawi meeting. Tawhid and Jihad, on the other hand, has demonstrated pockets of support in parts of Baghdad and in the central Iraq city of Samarra - near where the Australian kidnappings were claimed to have occurred.

Tawhid and Jihad has claimed responsibility for a number of kidnappings, and it also claimed the car bomging Tuesday and the attack on a US Bradley vehicle patrolling Haifa Street that started Sunday's incident.

After Sunday's bloodshed, the yellow sunburst on a black field that is Tawhid and Jihad's banner could still be seen fixed to Haifa Street palm trees. Haifa Street is also the site of an entire quarter built by Saddam Hussein for supporters and friends in his intelligence services and other agencies.

One challenge to addressing the kidnappings is that no one seems to know too much about who's behind them, why, and what the links are among disparate organizations.

"The connections appear in some cases to be strong but also diffuse," says Dan Plesch, an Iraq specialist at the University of London. "Some of the links are well organized while others look to be done on a free-lance basis."

Iraqi officials refuse to discuss publicly connections between specific groups, but the link between Fallujah, Haifa Street, and Tawhid and Jihad looks more suspicious with each additional incident. Privately, some officials say the working assumption is that Fallujah is the center of much of the kidnapping activity, but that proof is scant.

"Without a doubt the vast majority of these cases are carried out for money, it's become the business of organized crime," says Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "The problem is the more it is discussed, the higher the price goes up."

The Iraqi government has created an interagency working group to focus on the problem. In working with foreign officials, the Iraqis are encouraging as low a profile as possible for the cases - even though that can create political problems at home.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was harshly criticized for doing too little when an Italian journalist was kidnapped - and later killed - last month. Mr. Berlusconi took a different approach when the two Italian female aid workers were taken, dispatching ministers to Arab countries and asking Muslim leaders to intervene. Foreign Minister Franco Fratini plans to go on Arab satellite TV stations when he visits Qatar Wednesday.

Australian election issue

That approach is more in line with what French officials did after two French journalists were kidnapped south of Baghdad last month. But France's highly publicized efforts have yet to bear fruit, as the two journalists remain captive. "If there's too high a profile to these cases, it can backfire," Mr. Kadhim says. "It needs quiet."

But even without proof of its actually happening, the Australian case has already caused a stir at home. With elections set for Oct. 9, Australia's involvement in Iraq has become a sharp political issue in a tight race.

Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday: "We do not negotiate with terrorists, we do not bow to terrorists demands or threats."

Labor Party leader Mark Latham, Mr. Howard's chief rival in the election, says he agrees with the government's tough stance on terrorist demands. But at the same time he says Howard's decision to take part both in the Iraq war and in the postwar coalition has made Australia more of a target for terrorists.

Many Iraqis say they are troubled by the kidnapping of foreigners, but they also point out that the kidnapping of Iraqis has become an even bigger problem in terms of sheer numbers in the insecurity of the postwar.

Some of those cases are political - as when the two sons of the governor of Al Anbar governate were kidnapped earlier this summer. The sons were returned when the governor agreed to resign and renounce cooperation with the new Iraqi government.

But most are financially motivated crimes, officials say.

With the rise kidnappings - of Iraqis or foreigners, for political or monetary gain - Iraqi officials are pleading for help from around the world. "We're calling for a meeting of countries with expertise, even the interior ministers of the G-8 countries, to meet and share what they've learned about dealing with this," says Kadhim. "We need the help."

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