Kidnapping in Iraq on the rise

Amid unrest, Iraqi gangs have begun abducting women and children for ransom.

Rhandi, a 10-year-old boy, was on his way to buy some snacks at the corner store when a red car pulled up next to him. The men in the car said they needed his help to check a tire, and when Rhandi came closer, they grabbed him and sped away.

"How did I feel? Almost dead," says his grandmother, Shimoni Nissan. "His father couldn't move."

The Nissans wrote down a friend's telephone number - they didn't have their own - and pasted it on their front gate. When the kidnappers called two days later and said they had the boy, his father asked for proof. Rhandi's blue-and-white striped football jersey appeared on their doorstep that night.

The kidnappers demanded $300,000, a startling sum even for families in this upper-middle-class neighborhood, home to many Iraqi Christians, like the Nissan family. After 11 days and many rounds of negotiations later, says Mrs. Nissan, the boy was returned in exchange for $20,000.

"We're not wealthy, but people think it's a place where rich families live. It's one of those things: Even if you don't have the money, you borrow it from your relatives and the neighbors to get your son back," says Nissan, sitting in a sliver of shade in front of her house with a few of her neighbors, who watch the children at play in a way they never have before.

"You can't even leave your house," nods Abdul Massih Salwa, who lives next door. "Crime in Baghdad was never like this."

Lucrative business

Finding reliable crime statistics here, where the US-led occupation authorities are still scrambling to get a new Iraqi police running effectively, is almost impossible. But anecdotal evidence, interviews, local Iraqi media stories, and a new report from Centurion, a British security firm, suggest that crime in the capital has soared - and that kidnapping and abductions have become particularly lucrative.

Paul Bremer, the top US official in Iraq, acknowledged last week that crime was a formidable problem.

"This is a big job, not the least because Saddam Hussein let something like 100,000 prisoners out of all of the prisons in this country before liberation...." Bremer told reporters. "Many of them are murderers. Many of them are conducting the kidnappings and carjackings that are happening."

A new Iraqi police unit was set up in mid-July to deal with felonies like abductions and murders. So far, says Col. Raad Yaas, the head of the department, members of the task force arrested have three kidnapping gangs, including one, discovered last Thursday, with two abducted children.

"The target doesn't have to be a rich family. They kidnap children randomly, just on the basis of how they dress," says Mr. Yaas.

Indeed, fear of being targeted again - and low expectations of getting help from fledgling Iraqi institutions - keeps many families from turning to the police, who are absent from most neighborhoods anyway. Instead, they seek assistance from the only authority visible here - the US military, whose troops aren't trained to deal with crime.

Upon Rhandi's return, most of the family fled to Dohuk, in northern Iraq, in the formerly Kurdish autonomous region, where crime never spiraled out of control the way it has done here.

"Everyone is afraid to let their children outside," says Nissan, who has lived in Baghdad for the past half century. "This is the first time we've ever seen this happen. During Saddam's time, there was no such thing."

Of course, Hussein's regime was famous for its own frightening abductions, usually of political opponents or other suspects who were picked up by state intelligence police. Many of those missing have turned up in mass graves.

But the culture of fear under the Baathist regime, Iraqis say, kept random crime at a minimum - and meant that average women and children were rarely targets.

At the Iman beauty salon, nestled between two other shops that served as makeover row before the war, owner Iman Ibrahim says business is nonexistent. On three different occasions since the fall of Hussein's regime, she says, armed men have burst into her salon and abducted a woman.

When there is an occasional knock at the locked door, she peeks through the blinds before deciding to let anyone in. "This isn't normal. I want to sell the shop, but who will buy it?" she asks

Maruf Mohammed, who waited for his sister at the salon because of the lack of security, says that his mother was almost abducted last month as they walked together on the street.

"A van came by while we were on our way home, and they grabbed my mother's arm and tried to drag her inside," he says. Maruf says he held on to his mother even as one of the men in the van tried to drag her away - and eventually let go.

Many crimes unreported

The report released by Centurion, which is working in Iraq, says that overall security in Iraq is worsening, with kidnapping a particular problem. The report notes that kidnapping has often followed other conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya, with opportunists looking for a quick way to make money.

Several families who acknowledged being victims of kidnappings and abduction attempts declined to be interviewed during visits to their homes, fearing additional problems. Yanar Mohammed, head of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, says that there has also been a sharp increase of abductions of women, but that many such crimes are not reported.

"It's hard to get statistics and reports from the police. They have instructions not to give us information," says Ms. Mohammed, who returned to her native Iraq after eight years in Canada. "My understanding is that we are living in a postwar paradise, and the police don't want things to look bad for the Americans and the chaos caused after they came here."

Gen. Hassan Ali, the chief of police in Baghdad, says that on the contrary, the security situation will improve as more Iraqis turn to the police for help. "I announced on television that people who are victims of these crimes must come and complain to the police, and they have started to come," he says. "I think the situation is getting better. Crimes are decreasing."

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