How a reporter was set free

British journalist - and Monitor contributor - James Brandon was released after being held hostage by Iraqi militants.

Editor's note: This story was originally posted on August 13, 2004.

I learned about James Brandon's kidnapping in the car, on the way to a major demonstration by Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters in Baghdad. A reporter for CBS Radio News was calling to ask if I had heard from James - because there were reports from Basra that a British journalist had been kidnapped there.

My immediate inclination was to return to the hotel and start hitting the phones. But then I realized I was heading to the right place after all. The demonstration would be full of top Mahdi Army officials. This is the same group that controls Basra. If anyone could do something to secure James' release, it would be the Mahdi Army, rather than the Iraqi government or the coalition forces.

It wasn't clear at first who had kidnapped James, but I was pretty sure it would not be the Mahdi Army. Sadr's men have always seen journalists as their friends, a necessary method of reaching the outside world. Yet the video of James' kidnapping, broadcast on a few news channels and reported by Reuters and AP, said that the group shared many of the same goals - if not the methods - of the Mahdi Army. They demanded that American troops withdraw from Najaf in 24 hours, or James would be killed.

On arrival at the demonstration, I and other journalists quickly worked the crowd to find high level Shiite clerics. Each of us in our own way put polite pressure on these men, hoping that their better natures would prevail. One of these clerics, Sheikh Salah Al-Obeidi, assured me he would do everything he could to secure James' release. "The Mahdi Army respects all journalists as our friends - they convey our voices to the world," he said. "The Mahdi Army does not use kidnapping. I will do my best to stop it."

Later, I introduced Sheikh Al-Obeidi to the BBC reporter Kylie Morris, who broadcast Al-Obeidi's condemnation of the kidnapping. This was important. Now the Mahdi Army had taken a stand against the kidnapping. It was a matter of face, of honor for them. They had to follow through.

Other senior clerics also promised their help, but apologized that they were busy keeping the demonstration under control. With thousands of angry Shiites shouting slogans - "We sacrifice our souls for Moqtada" - just a hundred feet from the Green Zone, site of the American Embassy and the Iraqi government, and with US Army soldiers from the 1st Cavalry taking positions aboard tanks and Humvees, these clerics needed to devote their full attention to keeping passions under control. They wanted a photo op, not a blood bath.

If the clerics were having trouble keeping their minds on James, I was having trouble keeping my mind on their demonstration. Faint from the 115-degree heat, I started clicking pictures of the demonstrators as they bowed en masse toward Mecca for the afternoon prayers.

Between interviews with demonstrators and top clerics, I consulted other journalists on what to do. None of us even considered contacting the Iraqi government, the Americans, or even the British military, which has a contingent in Basra. All our instincts told us to work with the traditional power sources in Iraqi society. This meant putting polite pressure on religious figures who actually have some standing in the Shiite south. And in Basra, that meant dealing with the Mahdi Army.

It was ironic, trying to negotiate with the Mahdi Army at a time when hundreds of their own followers were holed up in the old city of Najaf, vowing to fight against the Americans until the last drop of blood. Yet the Mahdi Army's own sense of righteous indignation would not let their cause be spoiled by unrighteous methods.

After prayers, we met with the top cleric at the rally, Sayid Adel Al-Shara, who promised to look into the matter in a few hours, at the Mahdi Army office in Sadr City, the Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where Sadr's support is the strongest. We could do nothing but eat lunch, and wait. There was one other thing we did. My interpreter, Kadhim, asked for time to pray.

At 4 p.m., the appointed time for us to meet Sayid Al-Shara, we arrived at the Mahdi Army office to find it closed. Sadr City itself was practically abandoned. Most of the citizens were in the march to Najaf. Other Mahdi Army fighters were busy digging up sections of the road to lay improvised explosive devices, all for the anticipated battles ahead with US troops. We made our way to another likely hangout for Mahdi Army officials, the Hekma Mosque. There, a spokesman informed us that not only had the chief Mahdi Army official in Basra condemned the kidnapping, but Moqtada Al-Sadr himself - wounded from the battle in Najaf - had demanded James' release. If James was not released, the Basra official warned, then the Mahdi Army would find the kidnappers and attack them.

The momentum seemed to be turning.

By 5:30 p.m., we were seated in an air-conditioned Internet café in Sadr City, meeting with a high level Mahdi Army apparatchik named Fatah, who had even better news. The kidnappers had released a video saying they would release James soon. Within a half hour, these reports were confirmed, and James was giving an impromptu press conference at the Mahdi Army office in Basra, praising the militia for its help in securing his release.

"I was first treated harshly," he told reporters, "but I think after my captors heard the appeal by Sadr's office, their treatment changed."

I was in the middle of an interview with a moderate Shiite cleric, Sheikh Jalaluddin Al-Saghir, when I found out that James was released. The cleric is a supporter of moderate Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and he had just given his own analysis for why Shiites are now turning to kidnapping. Young poor Shiites were becoming radicalized, he said, as they saw their new government fail to bring any improvement in their lives - no electricity for their homes, no water, no new sewage systems. Their lives were just as bad as under Saddam Hussein.

"I tell you this honestly: I fear that one day these people may also try to kidnap you," Sheikh Al-Saghir said to me, through my interpreter Kadhim. "There is a radicalization of our culture. This is not in the character of our people. From an Arab perspective, the guest must be respected, even if he was the killer of a member of your family, you must treat him with respect."

"This policy of kidnapping, it may be for political reasons or economic reasons," he said. "But ultimately, their goal is to make the situation of this country look gloomy. I worry for the direction of my country."

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