Iraq's rising industry: domestic kidnapping

This week, Iraqi officials said they discovered the bodies of 50 kidnapping victims in the Tigris River.

Abu Mohammed was chatting with a friend in an auto repair shop in Salman Pak two months ago when masked gunmen surrounded him and stuffed his 260-pound frame in their trunk and sped away.

He spent the next 10 days locked in a bathroom with a hood over his head, marking the passage of time by listening to his captors' prayers.

A wealthy businessman who traveled daily from Baghdad to Salman Pak for more than 20 years, Mr. Mohammed survived after paying $60,000 to the kidnappers that he says were extremist Sunnis. "When I asked for a cigarette they said 'why do you want a cigarette?' It's haram," he says, using the Arabic word for something forbidden by Islam.

Mohammed and local residents say a raft of insurgents have flooded the Salman Pak area, located about 18 miles south of Baghdad and inside the Sunni stronghold known as the "Triangle of Death," since January, just over a month after the US Marine siege on Fallujah sent insurgents scattering to find new havens. In Salman Pak the result is a spate of violence and kidnappings that are stoking ethnic tensions.

"I knew my crime on the third day when I was taken to a court and sentenced. It was because I was a Shiite," said Mohammed, who declined to use his real name for fear of his safety.

The violence over the past few months in Salman Pak set the stage for an uproar this week over allegations that as many as 100 Shiites were kidnapped by Sunnis in Madain, a village in the same area. Reports surfaced that the kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages unless all Shiites left the area. That prompted the interim government to send troops to seal the area and search for hostages and insurgents. They didn't find any.

But on Wednesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that 50 bodies were discovered in the Tigris river. It remains unclear if those bodies were found all at once or were even from the Salman Pak area, indicating that there had indeed been a mass attack on Shiites. If they were found over a longer period of time, that would be more evidence of the slow but steady nature of violence there in recent months.

The news drew scores of Iraqis whose relatives had disappeared in the area to a Madain area police station Thursday to examine photographs of bodies recovered from the Tigris.

While the occasional kidnapping of a foreigner here makes international headlines, Iraqis are kidnapped regularly to little notice. Criminal gangs have turned it into a cottage industry. But in a more troublesome development, ideologically driven insurgents are using it to cleave ethnic groups in areas such as Salman Pak - already an uneasy mix of Sunnis and Shiites.

"This area has for some time been a troubled area," says Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "In the past there have been killings and revenge killings ... what happened was this situation was exploited by terrorists [who know] this is a good area to stir things up."

An accurate count of Iraqi kidnappings is hard to come by as these numbers aren't kept by the interior ministry and often Iraqis do not report kidnappings to authorities.

Historic divide

A lush plain around the Tigris river with easy access to Baghdad, Salman Pak was home to many top-ranking Baathist officials who had country homes or farms in the area. Mohammed says that a strong sense of loyalty to the regime still exists among many people there.

"This is a modern society with a very modern form of nationalism," says Tarak Barkawi, an expert in insurgency and international relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge in England. But "a whole variety of actors - from local leaders building power bases to the international community - have an interest in referring to 'Kurds' [or] 'Shia,' etc., as if they were fixed and given identities that resist change and are inherently in conflict."

In a telephone interview from his home in Salman Pak, Amer Mohammed, a Sunni, says, "this divide between us is done on purpose by unknown people. The same people are trying to create a sectarian problem and try to make this propaganda [about Shiites being kidnapped this week] that has no foundation. My neighbors are Shiites and we live in peace."

But Mohammed Ali, a Shiite laborer there, hinted that his Sunni neighbors with relatives in Samarra, a Sunni town north of Baghdad that is a hotbed of insurgents, may be fueling the violence. "A lot of families in Salman Pak are originally from Samarra and they have relatives there, and I can't [say] for sure they are assisting [fighters] in Salman Pak."

Temporary peace?

The lawlessness in the area around Salman Pak, which includes the villages Hurriah and Wahida, provides fertile ground for such suspicions to take root.

After the siege of Fallujah in November "the local police station in Madain was attacked by insurgents. And after that there was no government and no rule in that neighborhood. There are a lot of outsiders coming into the city and invading the city. Because of the absence of law and government they are free to do a lot of things," says Mr. Ali.

Amer Mohammed and Mohammed Ali both agree that the situation has improved since the military arrived but worry what will happen when they leave. "After the entrance of the forces into the city the people try to go to the police station and give information about the insurgents," Ali says.

For Abu Mohammed, though, no amount of troops can make him feel safe enough to go back there. He has given up his many businesses there and stays in his lavish home in eastern Baghdad, haunted by memories of prisoners kept with him that he heard being killed.

"I can't describe what I really feel because I could never imagine some day I will face such a tragedy," he says.

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