Friday, July 30, 2004

Iraqi Insurgents Using Abduction as Prime Weapon

By James Glanz

Baghdad, Iraq - Two Pakistani civilians working in Iraq were reported missing on Sunday in a suspected kidnapping by insurgents, who have rapidly developed hostage-taking as their most powerful weapon in recent days and issued fresh threats against other foreign nations.

The United States military also reported that 15 insurgents had been killed by American and Iraqi forces in an hour-long battle north of Baghdad that involved small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery fire. No Iraqi or American forces were reported killed.

The missing Pakistanis, a truck driver and an engineer working for Al Tamimi Group, a Kuwait company, disappeared as they were driving to Baghdad along heavily traveled supply routes. The family of one of the men made an emotional appeal for his release, speaking from their village 55 miles south of Islamabad.

"I miss my father very much," said the 21-year-old daughter of the missing man, Azad Khan, as she wept, according to Reuters. "I urge the Pakistani government and Iraqi people to help find my father."

In another display of their increasing ability to track and kidnap foreigners, hostage-takers seized an Egyptian diplomat as he left a mosque on Friday, and on Sunday appeared to flaunt their unchallenged control.

The television channel Al Arabiya reported that the kidnappers of seven employees of a Kuwaiti transport company from Kenya, India and Egypt had appointed a tribal leader, Sheik Hisham al-Dulaymi, to negotiate for their release.

It is unclear to what extent, if any, insurgent groups in Iraq are coordinating the kidnappings of foreigners.

But it is clear that they have grown more clever and adept at using kidnapping as a tool of intimidation and publicity since the successful abduction of a Filipino hostage, who was released last Tuesday.

The Filipino hostage, Angelo dela Cruz, was freed after his government withdrew 51 Philippine soldiers and police officers from Iraq. The insurgents - in what has also become a standard technique - had threatened to behead Mr. dela Cruz if his countrymen did not pull out.

The police in India said the wife of one Indian trucker who had been taken hostage was hospitalized in a state of shock after having pleaded for the release of her husband, Agence France-Presse reported.

Roughly 20 foreigners are either being held hostage or have already been killed by their captors in Iraq. In a new threat, a group identifying itself as an affiliate of Al Qaeda threatened to plant bombs throughout Australia if that nation did not withdraw from Iraq.

Abducting foreigners "is like putting pressure on the painful parts of the body," said Abdul Sattar Abdul al-Jabbar, deputy spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, a moderate group that has condemned the kidnappings but is critical of the continuing American presence in Iraq.

"It's very easy to kidnap foreigners in Iraq," Mr. Jabbar said. "It doesn't cost them anything," he said, referring to the insurgents.

George Sada, a spokesman for Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, asserted that the outbreak of hostage-taking had come about as insurgents had recoiled from what he called the increasing power of Iraqi security forces. But Mr. Sada conceded that each hostage turned into a highly visible statement by the insurgents that Iraq was a dangerous place to live and work.

"Of course, they are embarrassing the government by these acts," Mr. Sada said.

The firefight between insurgents and the American and Iraqi forces took place at Buhriz, 35 miles north of Baghdad, the United States military said. It followed a raid by the Iraqis in farm country there. American troops took part in the battle with artillery fire, air support and soldiers who were described as "providing security" during the fighting.

The role of the Americans was unclear. They have persistently sought to portray the Iraqi forces as growing more competent and in control of the country.

The hostage-taking tactic emerged in a major way during the first intense outbreak of insurgency in April. Since that time, at least 60 hostages have been reported freed, along with those who have been reported killed or are still missing.

More important, the taking of hostages has separated itself from the generalized violence in Iraq and become a prime weapon on its own. The method has the advantage, from the insurgency's point of view, of being cheap and almost entirely free of the risk run when American or Iraqi troops are confronted directly.

The personal nature of the tactic, usually involving video of the individual hostages with their captors and the threat of beheading, also ensures that each incident is given enormous exposure in the international media. As demonstrated by the pullout of the Philippine soldiers, which took place in the face of overwhelming public pressure in the Philippines to save Mr. dela Cruz, that exposure translates into a force that can move nations.

More specifically, the truckers who have been the focus of several recent incidents are part of an indispensable series of supply lines that bring materials in from surrounding countries. If those lines were to be disrupted, the entire American-backed effort to create stability and the conditions for a new government in Iraq could suffer.

"It's difficult to stop it, but we are trying to find the measures to decrease the number," said Hamid al-Bayati, the deputy foreign minister for political affairs and bilateral relations.

"We regret that some countries are really giving up to the terrorists," said Mr. Bayati, who is also a member of the central committee of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"But we respect their decisions," he said.

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First published in The New York Times on Monday 26 July 2004



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