Jill Carroll: finally free

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Katie Carroll went from a deep sleep to instantly awake when she saw the Iraq country code on her caller ID.

She grabbed the phone. It was 5:45 a.m and the ringing heralded the news about her twin sister, Jill, who had been held hostage in Iraq for nearly three months. "Katie, it's me," said the voice on the other end of the line. "I'm free."

It was Jill herself, safe after 82 days.

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"Then she burst into tears and I did, too,'' says Katie.

Journalist Jill Carroll was freed in Baghdad Thursday ending a period of captivity marked by an enormous global outpouring of support and calls for her release.

"I'm just really grateful. The overwhelming emotion is gratitude. I am glad this day has arrived and thank whatever forces, divine and otherwise, that helped bring about this day," says Jill.

On Jan. 7, Monitor freelancer Carroll traveled to interview Sunni Arab politician Adnan al-Dulaimi in Baghdad's western Adil neighborhood. He was not in his office, and, after waiting some 20 minutes, Carroll and her Iraqi driver and interpreter left.

After traveling about 300 yards, they were attacked by gunmen. Carroll was seized, and her interpreter, Allan Eniwya, was killed.

Thursday, Carroll's captors simply drove her to Amariyah, stopped the car, pointed her in the direction of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IPP) office at about 12:20 p.m. local time and then drove off.

Carroll, who was on assignment for the Monitor when she was kidnapped, gave a short interview to Baghdad TV, which is owned by the IIP, before being transported to the Green Zone by the US military. She was told the interview was for internal party uses only, and didn't realize it would be broadcast. In that interview Carrroll said that for most of her ordeal she was kept in a darkened room which she later described as a "cave."

"I really don't know where I was. The room had a window but the glass you know, you can't see," she said, making a motion with her hand as if the window was blocked, "and you couldn't hear any sound, and so I would sit in the room."

"If I had to take a shower I walked, you know, two feet, to the next door to take a shower or go to the bathroom and come back." From time to time, she says, she had contact with Iraqi women and children in the house which she found comforting.

She was only allowed to watch television and read a newspaper once and had little information about what was going on in the world at large.

"I was treated well, but I don't know why I was kidnapped," Carroll told the TV station about her kidnappers. In videotaped statements her captors had implied they would kill her if Iraqi prisoners held by coalition forces weren't released. But Carroll said, "They never hit me. They never even threatened to hit me."

Carroll says she asked an IIP official to call the Monitor's Baghdad hotel. He refused, and called the Washington Post's Baghdad office. Carroll is close personal friends with two of the Post's Iraqi staffers.

Her next call was to twin sister Katie. She then called her parents, Jim and Mary Beth.

The first thing she told me today was, 'I love you,'" says Mary Beth. "She said, 'Every single day I was in captivity, I cried over how worried you must be, and what a burden this must be for the family.' "

In fact, the day before release, Katie Carroll had appeared on the Arab TV station Al Arabiyah, where she had talked of the effect of the kidnapping on the family and pleaded for information that might lead to her sister's release.

"I was dreaming that this would be the way I'd find out - that she'd call me in the middle of the night like this,'' says Katie. "She sounded great. I just want to thank everyone who's prayed and given us support through this time, and we're obviously looking forward to some private time with Jill."

Monitor Editor Richard Bergenheim said Thursday: "This is an exciting day, we couldn't be happier. We are so pleased she'll be back with her family. The prayers of people all over the world have been answered."

President George Bush had said Carroll's release was a top priority for his administration, and her freedom was welcomed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a press conference in Berlin. Ms. Rice spoke of the "great delight and great relief of the United States, the people of the United States and, I'm sure, the people of the world at the release today of Jill Carroll."

Carroll's release followed half a dozen false leads in the effort to free her - people who contacted the Monitor or the Carroll family. Some demanded exorbitant ransoms, but never managed to produce a "proof of life." One scam artist, calling himself a repentant member of the kidnapper group and seeking a payoff, turned out to be a young Nigerian and was arrested in Germany. Other would-be players said they had contacts and could free her, but never delivered.

Her support among Iraqis appeared to be quite strong. Several Iraqi newspapers and television stations took up her cause. They reported her story, editorialized for her freedom, and donated public-service announcements designed by the Monitor's Baghdad correspondents that pleaded for Carroll's release.

Even the mother of a young Iraqi woman detained for months by the government without charges and finally released in late January was willing to speak publicly on Carroll's behalf. Politicians across the Iraqi political spectrum, especially leaders from the Sunni sect also spoke out emotionally on Carroll's behalf.

Across the Muslim world, voices not normally heard on behalf of an American, called for Jill's release: Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, and many others.

Hope rose with the release of the remaining three Christian Peacekeepers hostages last week. But it had been nearly two months since Carroll's last video was dated, and many experts were privately beginning to express discouragement about her status. It had been quiet too long, and without a single confirmed attempt to negotiate.

For the Monitor's "Team Jill" - an informal group of editors and writers who worked on her case, each assigned separate tasks - it was a difficult time.

Washington bureau chief David Cook every day passed a photo of Carroll taped to the door of the bureau's building. "You'd come in the door and see her picture and think, 'have I done everything I could today to help get her out?'" says Cook.

Monitor editor Bergenheim said no money had been exchanged for Carroll's release.

Following Carroll's arrival at the IIP office Thursday, the party's Secretary General Tariq al-Hashimi led a ceremony in which he handed the freed journalist gifts, and praised her release.

Mr. Hashimi is a rival for influence among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority of Adnan al-Dulaimi's, the politician Carroll had sought to interview on the morning of Jan. 7. Mr. Dulaimi has repeatedly denied involvement. Dulaimi has said that his political rivals - both Shiite and Sunni - were trying to hurt his political standing.

Leading IIP member Naser al-Ani said her appearance at their office, in a blue Islamic robe and wearing a light green headscarf identical to the one she wore in a Feb. 28 video issued by her captors, was completely unexpected. He said guards at the office "thought she was a party member - dressed Islamically like that, they thought she worked in [the Iraqi government's] Women's Affairs department."

Mr. Ani said she was dropped off near the office, in a Sunni stronghold in Western Baghdad. In a press conference, Hashimi said she bore a letter from her captors that she gave to the IIP guards.

A measure of the extent to which she was cut off from the outside world was that she didn't know if her driver had escaped on Jan. 7 during the abduction. News of his safety was a great relief to Carroll, her father Jim Carroll said.

"She knew about Alan, but did not know about [the driver],'' Mr. Carroll says. "She started to break down when we were talking about it, so I didn't pursue that too much."

Shortly before her release, her kidnappers also warned Carroll about talking to the US or going to the Green Zone, alleging to her that it was "infiltrated by the Mujahideen" and that she might be killed if she cooperated with the Americans, her family says.

When the US military arrived at the IIP offices to escort her to the Green Zone, she was at first reluctant to go. But in a brief phone call the Monitor's staff writer Scott Peterson in Baghdad, he persuaded her that was the best and safest course of action.

Kidnappers in Iraq have tried to scare former hostages like this in the past. When Italian journalist Guiliana Sgrena was released by her captors in February last year, they told her there was a CIA threat to kill her, and that she should rush to the airport rather than go to the Green Zone. As her car sped down the airport road, at the time one of the most dangerous stretches of Iraq, the US military opened fire on the car, killing Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence agent who helped secure her release.

Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper said the kidnappers had phoned the US military with an anonymous tip and the cars description, warning that it was a car-bomb.

At the time of writing, Ms. Carroll is receiving medical attention in the Green Zone.

Fully in character to all those who know her, Jill has repeatedly expressed concern for Allan and his family, and all the friends and family who've been worrying about her through her ordeal - particularly her parents and her sister.

Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this report from Washington and Awadh al-Taee contributed from Baghdad.

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