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What's driving the kidnappings in Iraq

Three videos highlight the latest spike in kidnapping Westerners.

By , Faye Bowers / February 2, 2006



WASHINGTON

A wave of abductions is sweeping through Iraq - as evidenced this week by three videotaped demands by groups holding Western hostages.

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Since last fall the number of foreigners seized has spiked, following a prolonged lull. Meanwhile, Iraqis themselves are being kidnapped in large numbers - some months, more than 30 per day.

These crimes occur for many reasons in a society that is still struggling with basic governance and security. But the political kidnappings that have received the most attention in the West - such as the case of American reporter Jill Carroll - may be terrorism of a particularly pure sort, say experts.

In today's wired age, it's easier than ever to affect viewers around the world with powerful images of powerless hostages. And that may be the point of these terrible acts: to frighten the West, intimidate moderate Iraqis, and rally supporters.

"The goal of terrorism has nothing to do with killing innocent victims, or the victims themselves," says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. "The goal is to have an impact on outside audiences."

Ms. Carroll was taken hostage on Jan. 7 in Baghdad. On Jan. 17 her captors - self-described as the "Brigades of Vengeance" - released a video in which they implied they would kill her within 72 hours if US forces and the Iraqi Interior Ministry did not release Iraqi women in their custody. On Monday, Al Jazeera broadcast a second video of the apparently distraught Carroll who was again calling for the release of female prisoners.

Unfortunately, Carroll is not alone. Four Christian peace activists - two Canadians, an American, and a Briton - who had disappeared on Nov. 26, were shown in a new video on Al Jazeera this week. A statement from the "Swords of Righteousness Brigades" read with the video said that they would be killed unless the US released all prisoners.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "shocked" by a video of two captive German engineers that aired on Al Jazeera Tuesday. Their kidnappers have demanded that Germany close its Baghdad embassy and cut ties with Iraq in exchange for the hostages' lives, said Al Jazeera.

A Jordanian embassy driver, who was abducted in Iraq on Dec. 20 while going to work, appeared in a Jan. 22 video. His kidnappers want to trade him for Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber whose belt failed to explode in the Nov. 9 attack on an Amman hotel. Two Kenyan truck drivers abducted in Baghdad on Jan. 18 have not been heard from. Ten Iraqis escorting the Kenyans' convoy were killed in the incident.

Since May 2003, 268 foreigners have been kidnapped in Baghdad, according to an index maintained by the Brookings Institution in Washington. Of these, 135 were released, three escaped, three were rescued, and 44 were killed, according to Brookings. The fate of 81 hostages remains unknown.

The rate of these abductions has increased in recent months, following a lull through early 2005. Twenty-four Westerners were seized in August 2005, followed by 11 in November, and 13 in December, according to Brookings.

The number for January 2006 was five.

Meanwhile, Iraqis continue to be seized in great numbers, to settle scores, make political points, and gain ransoms. In December 2005, there were 30 domestic kidnappings a day across the country, according to Brookings.

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