An Anglican envoy spearheading the search for hostages in Iraq is urging senior Sunni and Shiite clerics to issue a joint fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding kidnapping.
The call for a fatwa comes amid growing suspicion that kidnappers are selling their foreign hostages to militant Islamic groups, making it almost impossible to trace them.
But coalition forces had a rare breakthrough Tuesday, rescuing three Italian security guards and a Polish contractor. Few details were immediately available, but all four hostages were said to be in good health and there were no casualties during the rescue operation. The Italians were kidnapped on April 12, along with a fourth colleague who was later executed. The Pole was abducted last week.
About 20 foreigners are being held hostage in Iraq and, according to Andrew White, canon of Coventry Cathedral in England and director of the International Center for Reconciliation, abductions show little sign of ending.
"Our information gathering makes us quite certain that these groups are handing on their hostages," he said in an interview.
Canon White, also an adviser to the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, believes that the kidnappings are becoming more organized and structured.
"If lightweights have hostages, they know they can sell them on to Al Qaeda-type groups," he says. "This will really complicate things for us because these groups have little respect even for the Islamic authorities."
Last week, several mortar rounds targeted the Italian Embassy in Baghdad, killing two passersby. A day earlier, a videotape of the three Italian hostages was aired on the Arabic Al Jazeera TV station. Also last week, two Italian diplomats were wounded in Baghdad in an unreported attack.
Canon White says that the incidents were deliberately timed to coincide with the visit to Italy by President Bush. "This orchestrated method [of] targeting the Italians when Bush goes to Italy demonstrates that there's a highly skilled operator behind what's happening," he says.
Up to 40 foreigners were kidnapped during a spate of abductions in early April when US forces laid siege to the Sunni flash-point town of Fallujah and fought a Shiite uprising in the south. Several hostages were executed, including Nicholas Berg, an US engineer whose videotaped decapitation, US authorities believe, was carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamic militant blamed for much of the violence in Iraq.
Although most of the hostages subsequently were released, the kidnappings have continued at a steady rate. In the past week alone, three foreigners have been snatched, a Turk, an Egyptian, and the Pole who was freed Tuesday.
A regular visitor to Iraq for seven years and an experienced troubleshooter in the Middle East, Canon White is using his relationships with key Sunni and Shiite clerics in the hope that their combined moral authority can persuade kidnappers to free their hostages.
But his team has only had one success so far, winning the release of Nabil Razouk, an Israeli-Arab from East Jerusalem who worked with the US Agency for International Development and was kidnapped on April 7.
Hunting for hostages in Iraq is proving a hazardous endeavor. The British clergyman has received death threats, and some of the clerics assisting him have been scared off. Sheikh Abdel-Qader al-Anni, a prominent Sunni cleric who was helping White, went into hiding after his home was damaged in a bomb blast last month. Another senior Sunni cleric, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Humayem, who was close to Saddam Hussein, is staying in Amman, Jordan, fearing he will be killed if he returns to Iraq. White had hoped that Sheikh Humayem would issue the joint fatwa on behalf of the Sunni community.
"This is interfaith relations at the cutting edge," he says. "This isn't a case of nice people talking to other nice people and eating cucumber sandwiches in suburbia. These people are taking risks."
Most the kidnappings occur in the Sunni triangle, especially between Baghdad and Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital, and in the belt south of Baghdad containing the towns of Yussefiyeh, Mahmoudiyeh, and Latifiyeh.
While the kidnappers in those areas are almost certainly Sunni militants, abductions have also taken place in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad and the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks between US troops and the Mahdi Army, loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The kidnappings have echoes of the hostage crisis in the mid-1980s in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, when dozens of foreigners were abducted by Iran-backed Shiite militants and, in some cases, held for several years. "I think the kidnappers have learned their lessons from Lebanon," says Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who hunted for Western hostages in Beirut. "That's how it happened in Beirut - gangs pick them up, then sell them on."
Those kidnappings were carried out by Shiite militants connected by family and clan ties. Such was the secrecy surrounding the abductions that more than a decade after the last Western hostage was released in Beirut, the precise identity of the kidnappers is still unknown.
Western investigators face a similar problem in penetrating Iraq's complex web of tribes, clans, sects, and political groups. Despite the success in securing the release of the four hostages Tuesday, the State Department's counterterrorism chief here has had little success discovering the whereabouts of the hostages and the kidnappers' identity, despite having the resources of the CIA and US military intelligence at his disposal. He is returning to the US shortly and is not expected to be replaced, underscoring White's complaint that the coalition is not giving sufficient attention to the kidnapping problem.
"We need a proper coordinated team, we need offices, and we need resources to search for these people," he says.
But, says Mr. Baer, "they will never be able to negotiate with the kidnappers. They are not going to stop it by intelligence. There's no way to get inside these groups. As long as they have the energy, the kidnappings will continue." [Editor's note: In the original version, Baer's quote appeared to be attributed to another source.]