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Hostage-taking spree prompts foreign workers to flee Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Saddam Hussein didn't scare electrical engineer Jamal Polatov away. Neither did the U.S. airstrikes that shattered the Iraqi Army, nor the suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks that have bedeviled the U.S. occupation of Iraq for nearly a year.

But on Thursday, the Russian native left for Moscow, joining a growing exodus of contract workers fleeing shadowy insurgents trying to drive out the foreigners. The insurgents' latest tactic—taking hostages—is working.

"A week ago they kidnapped seven or eight Russians. So we decided to leave," said Polatov, 55, a fluent Arabic speaker who has been working on and off in Iraq for about 20 years. "We're afraid of the terrorists," he said, casting the kidnappers as a fringe element. "The Iraqis are our friends."

Yet a corner of Baghdad International Airport was awash with Russian contract workers, dourly smoking cigarettes and going on a duty-free shopping spree. In the space of an afternoon, the Moscow-based energy firm Tekhnoprom evacuated its entire 370-member staff in three special Russian-made Ilyushin charter flights. The flights were sent days after eight employees were abducted, then freed in a week-old churn of kidnappings.

In all, about 40 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq. Most have been released. On Thursday, the longest-known held among them—three Japanese—were released after a Sunni tribal leader intervened. But on Wednesday, the first known foreigner was reported executed. Italian citizen Fabrizio Quattrocchi, 35, who worked as a security guard for a U.S. defense contractor, was shot in the head in videotape too grisly to show on the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel. Quattrocchi was among four Italians taken hostage this week.

So, in another terminal on Thursday, European and Arab businessmen streamed onto two shuttles to neighboring Jordan—part routine rotation travel, part retreat from the worrying security situation.

"It's the best time to leave," said Mahmoud Maghrabi, 51, managing director of the Iraq office of Caterpillar, as he headed to Cairo for two weeks of vacation. He declared that even a fellow Arab like himself, an Egyptian, wasn't off-limits to the hostage takers.

"We're accused of helping the American Army," he said glumly. "We're helping the people—why kidnap them?"

Thursday's list of the missing included two U.S. soldiers; seven workers for the Pentagon contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root; an East Jerusalem Palestinian; a Canadian humanitarian aid worker; three surviving Italian security guards; and a three-member Czech television crew. Most were believed taken along "Kidnap Corridor," the east-west road linking Baghdad to the hotspots of Ramadi and Fallujah, where U.S. military convoys and Marines on patrol have suffered heavy losses in ambushes and organized attacks.

Coalition officials, for their part, dismissed Thursday's departures as inconsequential. Iraqi reconstruction efforts can continue, a senior coalition official said, because for every contractor that leaves, there are plenty more workers waiting.

But a senior adviser to an Iraqi governing official called it a worrying trend. He'd spent three hours that morning at the normally sleepy Royal Jordanian ticket counter, picking up tickets for a three-week trip to London, and found it in "chaos."

"It was like the fall of Saigon," said the man, who asked not to be named. "People were reaching over the counter. There was a mild hysteria."

Part of the problem, he said, is that the Marines have closed off the major Amman-Baghdad road because of an ongoing offensive in Anbar province, home to the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. So people who normally travel by road are stuck in the capital, unless they can find a seat and pay the $1,100 roundtrip airfare.

German steam valve overhauler Harald Tenter, 37, lugged a huge suitcase to the terminal, saying it was time to go.

Both his employer, Barsch & Gehrmann Co., and the German Embassy had ordered his evacuation from the Dura power plant, he said. He added that Iraqis could maintain the plant in the short term, but he would need to return to do more work in some months.

"It's not safe," he said soberly. "The Iraqi people kidnap foreign people, and they don't care which nationality. And they kill them. That is the problem of the moment."

He said he thought the crisis could last for weeks, or at least until June 30 when the United States has pledged to return sovereignty to Iraqis.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-EXODUS

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