Kidnappings tear at Iraq's frayed social fabric

Sectarianism appears to be growing motive as numbers rise.

The kidnappers abducted three brothers and a cousin, then sent a text message that gripped one Iraqi family with a fear it had never known.

"Leave this area [you Shiites], or we will cut your necks so that the Americans can never help you," warned the message to the family last month at their palm-forested farm south of Baghdad. "We are watching your every step. You are the tail of the occupation."

The family - including 13 children of the four abducted men - fled immediately to the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Days later, the bodies of two of the victims were found floating in the Tigris River, shot in the head.

The number of kidnappings in Iraq is rising, gnawing away at a social fabric already frayed by violence and insecurity. Anecdotal evidence points to a recent marked shift in attackers' motives, from criminal to sectarian aims. The result is extended families torn by trauma and forced to move to "safer" neighborhoods, or out of Iraq completely.

They can face ruin by paying high ransom demands that do not always bring loved ones back alive.

Progress, life, and work are all put on hold, while distraught family members trek from morgue to local police stations and back again, in a grim ritual as hope fades by the day.

"It's a tragedy," says Akil Kadhim Moassin, his face contorting as he tells of finding his brother's corpse at the morgue after police retrieved it from the Tigris. "How do you deal with this? You hope you can find them [the two men who remain missing] and continue normal life."

But Mr. Moassin knows the chance of seeing those two grows less each day. The wife of one victim - ironically, a Sunni woman - gave birth to a fourth child, a boy, just a couple days after the father was kidnapped. Though "safe" now in the Shiite city of Karbala, the family has lost its moorings.

"The children can't continue their schooling, and we [adults] can't continue our jobs, because we are still looking" for the remaining captives, says Moassin. The mother wept over the body of her lost son, and asked: "Where are your brothers?"

High profile cases get the most newspaper ink: The 82-day ordeal of the Monitor's Jill Carroll earlier this year, for example, among 250 foreigners taken hostage; and the audacious daylight kidnapping of 50 Iraqis Monday on a Baghdad street. Fifteen of those Iraqis were found alive Wednesday, showing signs of torture; three were shot in the foot.

But as all those victims know - Western and local alike - most Iraqi abductions rarely get a newspaper mention, and many end in death. A senior police source says Baghdad is afflicted with a minimum dozen kidnappings a day, though the number is frequently much higher.

That growth matches the surge in official death statistics. The Baghdad morgue has so far this year tabulated 6,000 violent individual deaths, separate from mass casualties such as car bombs, according to local newspapers and a BBC report. Last month broke the record since the US occupation began, with nearly 1,400 dead.

Many say that those figures are being kept deliberately low for political reasons, as the newly formed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struggles to curb insurgent violence and rein in party militias - often blamed for sectarian killings. But internal power struggles mean that key cabinet security posts are not yet filled.

There have been some successes. One accomplice in the late 2004 kidnapping and murder of Irish-born aid worker Margaret Hassan - who opposed the US invasion, had married an Iraqi, lived here for 30 years, and held Iraqi citizenship - was sentenced to life in prison earlier this week.

Searching for family members

But for many Iraqis, stricken by the lawlessness and threats - and intimidated by the ever-growing list of reasons for kidnappings - the saga too often ends badly. Lives are turned upside down in a few seconds, at gunpoint; families in mixed Shiite-Sunni areas are forced to move. Fear pervades.

Moassin's family drama is as real as the kidnapping was typical. The cousin was driving the others to work in a minivan the morning of May 2, leaving their 30-hectare farm. Three Sunni friends were in the vehicle, too, in the mixed area west of the river.

That morning, Sunni Arab insurgents wearing black ski masks had set up a checkpoint 500 yards down the road. The minivan was stopped, and all seven men were blindfolded and driven off, followed by three Opel cars, a favorite of Iraq's Mujahideen. Shortly, the kidnappers let the three Sunni men go.

Every other day, Moassin continues his search, scouring morgues and police stations, for any sign of the missing. The family lives in limbo, crammed into a small house in Karbala, too afraid to ever return to their old farm, while friendly Sunni neighbors sell their livestock one animal at a time on their behalf.

A Sunni survival story

But Iraq's majority Shiites are not the only victims. Though they have been the main target of insurgent bombings for two years, Shiite militias have been taking revenge since the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Shiites now dominate the government, and their party militias are active in Iraq's new security forces. They are accused of mounting uniformed "death squads" against disenfranchised Sunni Arabs.

Ali Shalal Habib met their wrath in the past week. He is a young Sunni college student who had served in the Iraqi Army for a year and has been a guard at the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, whose leader is a vice president of Iraq. Six Sunni families have fled Mr. Habib's once-mixed neighborhood of Shaab in northern Baghdad recent months. "Some were Baathists, some were [extremist Sunni] Salafis," says Mr. Habib.

Habib was walking at dusk with two friends and a cousin last Sunday, when two large SUVs with darkened windows and no license plates pulled up. Men jumped out wearing flak jackets and dressed in black - typically a sign of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The men resisted as the gunmen tried to get them into the vehicles. Habib's cousin was shot in the leg; Habib was struck with the butt of an assault rifle and his forehead - now wrapped with a white gauze bandage - was cut with a military knife.

Habib says the gunmen shouted: "You are [extremist] Wahhabis, Sunnis, terrorists! The least you deserve is death!"

Habib slipped into unconsciousness, and awoke to find himself blindfolded and being driven around Baghdad, his arms bound behind his back with black packing tape. He recalled how a Sunni sheikh had told his congregation, when sectarian violence flared in February, that "anyone who comes in black to take you, shoot him and kill him."

"I was never afraid, because I never did anything bad," says Habib. "I have a lot of experience, because I have seen many bodies and body parts. It's a normal thing."

What was not normal, was that Habib and his friends were dumped on the street near the canal several hours later, alive. "Everyone was surprised we were released, because when you are kidnapped, you are usually killed. It was the last warning to us [to leave]."

The first threat had come in February, in the form of a letter pasted to the front door; it came with a single Kalashnikov bullet. The family had three days to leave.

A second threat letter helped convince the family - with six military-aged boys - to move. Habib's father was also an Iraqi Air Force pilot, who flew in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Such pilots have been targeted in the past by Shiite militias with ties to Iran.

The family left for one week, but three days after returning, a third letter came. "My father was very angry," recalls Habib. "He said: 'We will never leave. We will die in this home.' "

"My mother objected," says Habib. "She said: 'We can't sacrifice our children to stay in this home.' " The family decided to leave, but the kidnapping took place before they could go. Now the boys dare not go home; the entire family is moving to the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya.

"It's a psychological war against us, because we are Sunni," says Habib, who hopes to resume his final year of business administration classes next fall. "They are trying to sabotage this country and make people afraid and force them to leave."

'I should leave Iraq'

First out the door to Syria will be another young man, this time a Shiite, once his gunshot wounds heal. The case of "Majid" - a pseudonym that he chose, because his attackers still think he is dead - illustrates how quickly the most mundane act can turn dangerous.

After a couple years working as a driver and guard, Majid wanted to buy a car and moonlight as a taxi driver. As he was doing the sales paperwork in the dusty Al-Bayaa district south of Baghdad, he was asked to produce an ID card. Instead of the national Iraqi one, he used one that allows him access to the Green Zone - the heavily fortified palace complex that houses the Iraqi government, the US Embassy, and US military headquarters.

Suddenly, the paperwork dragged on. He was asked to park his car again, in a place more difficult to get out of. And though the price had been agreed, Majid was now told that he would have to come back the next day.

Delayed, Majid and his friend finally jumped in their car and pulled out, but were attacked by four men wearing ski masks. They carried pistols with silencers and an assault rifle and had apparently been tipped off by the car salesman. Majid fought back with his own pistol.

"I couldn't hear anything but the sound of bullets passing by," says Majid of the mid-May incident. "I thought my soul would go out of my mouth."

Majid was shot through both cheeks and his upper arm - still pinned and bandaged - and left for dead. His friend escaped, shot once through the neck and six times in the back.

"They were not looking for the car or money - they came to kill me, because they know I worked in the Green Zone," says Majid.

"The fear is heavy on me. I can't do anything. I must stay at home. If I don't maybe they will attack my family, or kidnap them.... [Insurgents] are still looking for me, because they are still angry. If they want to kill someone, they will," he says.

For protection, Majid's friends and relatives visit, often staying heavily armed. He can see only one solution.

"I should leave Iraq," says Majid, hunched over his broken left arm. "Then everyone here can take their rest. When I leave, no one here will be afraid."

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