Kidnapped in Iraq: a survivor's story

A freed hostage tells of bandits, betrayal, and men in black hoods.

As Amir Dawoud Issa, a technician for an Egyptian cellphone firm working in Iraq's war-torn Sunni triangle, delved into the guts of a problem generator, shots rang out in the distance.

At first he didn't think much of it - distant explosions from US air raids and insurgent gun fire were a steady backdrop to his six months working in the Iraqi desert. But then he saw a vision from another age: Bedouin raiders, some on donkeys, brandishing rifles and bearing down on his crew. His pulse racing, he watched as his guards were overwhelmed before they could get to their guns. Then the bandits, wearing the checked head scarves of rural tribes, were upon him.

"They were shouting in the most terrifying, barbaric voices,'' says Mr. Issa, an Egyptian Christian from the poor Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba. "We were all forced face down into the dirt. I thought they would strip us of our valuables and kill us."

Instead, the raid was the beginning of a week in captivity for Issa and nine of his colleagues.

Their time in captivity illustrates the reach of Iraq's multifaceted insurgency and how far from central control much of the countryside remains.

Now back in Cairo, the trim 39-year-old describes an overlapping network of tribal sheikhs, criminal gangs, and Islamists who seem to have deepened their influence and spread from Fallujah to Iraq's vast Anbar province into small towns and villages.

He tells of being kept in the back rooms of homes in villages. At the end of his captivity, he was held at a "mujahideen prison" where he witnessed the interrogation of a terrified Iraqi translator for the US who told his captors which local sheikhs had met with US forces. He witnessed one of his compatriots being tortured.

Issa's experience indicates there is no knockout blow that could be delivered to Sunni insurgents by ongoing US offensives in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. As an Arabic speaker, Issa got to know some of his captors, and all those he spoke to were Iraqis.

He's a seasoned veteran of work in dangerous places. Issa has installed mobile phone networks during Algeria's civil war and in Yemen's sometimes lawless backwaters. So when his boss approached a group of the company's managers about extending Iraq's mobile phone network along one of two main highways through the chaotic Anbar province, he didn't feel he could say no: "It was up to me."

Evidence of Iraq's chaos was all around his crew as they traveled through the sparsely populated desert between Baghdad and Syria. The sight of three headless bodies along the highway reminded them of the dangers for contractors in Iraq.

Those dangers, and the fact that no one is safe from them any longer, was brought home again Tuesday, when Margaret Hassan, the Iraq director for CARE International and a 30-year resident of Baghdad, was kidnapped after leaving her home.

Yet despite the dangers of traveling in Iraq, Issa felt relatively safe. His company, Egypt's Orascom, had no US ties and was providing a service that most in the region were eager to have.

On the morning of Sept. 22 Issa and his 26-man team - shepherded by a carload of Iraqi guards - set out from Baghdad before dawn on the 200 mile journey to one of their final transmission towers. They arrived at the tower along the main highway in the desert at about 11 a.m. All was calm, and the Iraqi guards left their weapons in their car.

Within half an hour, the kidnappers struck. One of his Iraqi colleagues tried to intervene but was lashed with a rifle butt. Issa caught a glimpse of their on-site guard, laughing with their attackers, and assumes he was set up. After frantic minutes of demanding to know who the Egyptians were, they loaded four Egyptians and five Iraqis into their cars.

They drove east toward Ramadi, with the kidnappers' rifles in their guts. After a few moments, the car stopped in front of a truckload of gunmen. An argument broke out as to whose territory this was and who had the right to take captives.

The dispute settled, the kidnappers traveled west toward Syria, where the nine men were held overnight in the desert. The captors reassured the men, saying, "Don't worry, we're Muslims and we don't kill without good reason."

In the morning, an imposing, bearded sheikh came to see them. After he asked them a few questions - "Were they working for the Americans? Were they Israeli spies?" - Issa's T-shirt was ripped to make blindfolds and the men were loaded into vans and taken to a town about 15 minutes away. Their new location seemed to be a crowded house, and there were further accusations and questions from the sheikh, which caused one of Issa's Iraqi colleagues to panic and lie, saying that they were in fact Israeli spies. "At this point, the rest of us began to ... pray," Issa says. "We thought we were dead." Issa spoke up, saying they worked for an Egyptian company and reminded him that Egypt had fought Israel.

Finally, the men were taken to another house and allowed to sleep. The next morning, three of the Iraqi captives were released, leaving just four Egyptians and two Iraqis. But Issa was worried after one of the captors whispered in his ear - "You're the first one to lose your head tomorrow." As Issa neared tears again, thinking of his four children in Egypt, another spoke up. "That's just his way of joking," he said.

That evening, Issa implored their captors - all new faces - to eat with them, reasoning that having broken bread they'd be less inclined to kill them. But things took a grim turn. The next morning, five men in black hoods entered the room carrying a video camera. They set up a jihad banner on the wall, a scene familiar to anyone who's seen glimpses of the videotapes of beheadings. "These guys were different - they wouldn't even talk to us,'' says Issa.

While the men set up their equipment, screams came from the next room. Issa was taken there and saw his Iraqi colleague, the one who had "confessed" to working for Israel, hooked up to electric wires. One of the captors told Issa he'd be tortured as well if he wasn't honest, then pulled out a cellular phone. "Is it true the Americans can find me if I use this?" he asked. Issa said it might be true, but he wasn't sure. After a few more questions the man said: "Ok, we're done. We'll talk to the emir and see if you can live."

Issa was returned to the communal room with the rest of the captives, and yet another group of insurgents came. These men struck Issa as ultrareligious - they objected to the cigarettes the captives had been sharing with their kidnappers. These men blindfolded and took their hostages to yet another location.

The men were then taken into what Issa called a mujahideen prison. They were dumped into a windowless room with many other men, some in chains. He watched as an Iraqi doctor and others were tortured.

During the captivity of Issa and his colleagues, Orascom, their company, had been working every channel available to Iraqi religious leaders seeking the men's release. A breakthrough was eventually reached. Later that day, the men were released on the road a short distance from where they were taken captive.

"There were so many good people in Iraq, but I've got gray hair on my chest and in my beard now, my family was terrified,'' says Issa. "I'm never going back there again."

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