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Abductions in Iraq a big business

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

By / September 15, 2004


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.

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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.

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."