A growing spate of hostage-taking in Iraq marks what may be the most direct effort yet by terrorists and insurgents to gain bargaining power and sway global public opinion on the war.
A rash of death threats against captive foreign civilians is intended to undercut support abroad for the US-led military occupation while exposing a weakness in coalition security.
The US military has few good options for countering the hostage-taking spree - the latest frustrating new guerrilla tactic testing US forces along with suicide bombings, hit-and-run roadside ambushes, and urban warfare.
With his missions multiplying, US Mideast commander Gen. John Abizaid announced Monday that he has asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for additional US mobile combat brigades - totaling several thousand troops - as reinforcements to the planned troop strength in Iraq. In a troubling acknowledgement, General Abizaid expressed his "great disappointment" that in recent days some Iraqi security units failed to "stand up to the intimidators," meaning Iraqi militants battling US forces.
Against the backdrop of that effort to put a lid on the bloodiest wave of unrest in Iraqi cities since Baghdad's fall, hostage-rescue missions aren't something the US military is likely to devote major resources to, experts say.
"Kidnappings are another way for have-nots to level the playing field," says Bruce Blythe, who has been involved in hostage rescues as CEO of Crisis Management International in Atlanta. Unable to take on US forces in conventional battles, "terrorists have caught on to leverage," he says. "[Hostage-taking] is another tool in their arsenal and its appears they are being more purposeful about it."
To be sure, the seizing of hostages is not expected to have any immediate impact on the ongoing ground campaign by US troops to reassert control in cities inflamed by fighting with Sunni and Shiite militants this month. With the Shiite holiday of Arbain now over, US forces were poised for possible strikes in Karbala, Najaf, and nearby Kufa on areas still held by the rebel militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"We have maneuvered forces down to the vicinity of Najaf" to prepare to conduct offensive operations against Sadr's forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told a Pentagon press briefing Monday.
Yet hooded captors have made clear in their demands that they see the hostages as a way to pressure US forces to pull out of cities such as Fallujah, which remained under a tentative cease-fire on Monday, as well as to persuade Japan and other countries to withdraw their forces from Iraq altogether.
Kidnappers have threatened to kill American hostage Thomas Hamill, a contractor whose fuel convoy was attacked outside Baghdad last week, unless the US Marines withdraw from Fallujah. Gunmen have also threatened to burn alive three Japanese hostages unless Tokyo withdraws its 550 troops engaged in reconstruction in Iraq.
In all, about three dozen foreign nationals have been abducted in Iraq in recent weeks. In addition to Mr. Hamill, six other US civilian contractors and two US soldiers from his convoy are now missing, as is one Canadian.
In the past few days, several hostages including Koreans, and a Briton, as well as Pakistanis have reportedly been released. Seven Chinese, abducted Sunday in Fallujah, were said to have been released Monday, too.
US officials insist the tactic of hostage-taking won't work. "We don't negotiate for hostage release," US coalition head Paul Bremer said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," reiterating longstanding US policy. So far, Japan has also refused to bow to the captors' demands.
Nevertheless, American policy does not rule out behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the hostages' release, which US officials indicate are ongoing. The policy, laid out in a February 2002 State Department release, states that "the US government will make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of hostages without making concessions to the hostage takers."
Indeed, with video-taped images of Hamill and other captives playing on television around the clock, the hostage spree is undoubtedly adding to deepening public concern over the Iraq crisis as illustrated by opinion polls showing falling support for the war, experts say.
"They [kidnappers] know they've got us over a barrel" when they take a hostage, says Mr. Blythe. He says "It's just an open wound that doesn't go away," often leaving the government facing political fallout from what he calls the "outrage factor."
In the past, hostage crises have significantly hurt the reputations of the Carter, Reagan, and other recent US administrations. These include the case of the American diplomats seized by Iranian students in Tehran in 1979 and the aborted US military effort to rescue them in 1980.
Today, most major US companies with employees working in overseas troublespots buy kidnap ransom insurance and often pay for their workers' release, says Blythe. He was involved in a mission to free seven US oil workers in Ecuador in 2001 in which a helicopter dropped a ransom payment of $13.5 million, bundled in $100 bills, onto a river bank.
Yet Iraqi kidnappers seem motivated not by money, but by politics and the ideology of "jihad," or Holy War, security experts say.
Elite US troops specialized in counterterrorism and hostage rescue, such as the Army's Delta Force, could theoretically be tapped to attempt to free Hamill or other US captives. However, history suggests that to succeed such missions requires meticulous planning, pin-point intelligence, as well as speed. And the locations of the hostages are now unclear.
In perhaps the smoothest hostage rescue effort in recent history, crack Peruvian troops in 1997 freed 71 of 72 hostages held by Marxist guerrillas at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in only 16 minutes.