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Kidnapping explodes in Iraq, as pool of potential victims widens

BAGHDAD, Iraq—There's a simple explanation for the kidnapping epidemic in Iraq, which grows worse day by day: The tactic works.

Whether their aim is political, financial or simply to terrorize, hostage-takers here often get what they want, Iraqi officials and security experts said Thursday.

So what began with the kidnapping and televised beheading of U.S. citizen Nicholas Berg has evolved into an everyday crime, embraced by groups that run the gamut from common criminals to homegrown religious extremists to former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and foreign terrorists.

The pool of targets has widened as well, to include women, journalists, wealthy and middle-class Iraqis and anyone—foreign or native-born—whom the hostage-takers deem as someone who cooperates with U.S. forces or the interim government.

"Nothing sells like success," said Michael P. Noonan, a national security fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Using hostages, kidnappers have driven Philippine troops and an untold number of foreign corporations out of Iraq. They've received ransoms, many of them in secret. And, with their brazen abductions and willingness to kill, they've sown fear throughout the country, reminding residents and foreigners alike how weak Iraq's new government remains.

Kidnapping and security experts said it was a familiar pattern that had played out before in such countries as Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, where hostage taking is even more common than in Iraq.

"The first victims are prominent, very high-profile. Then, based on that catalyst of publicity, the crime flourishes," said David Lattin, a former hostage negotiator who's now the kidnap and ransom expert at the St. Paul Travelers Companies.

That kind of copycat growth is operating on several levels in Iraq. Foreigners continue to be targeted largely for political purposes, while affluent Iraqis are most at risk from criminals seeking ransoms, Lattin said.

Both types of kidnappings are likely to continue and even grow worse, experts and Iraqi officials said, until the tactic stops producing results.

Thus far, however, all signs point to more kidnappings.

"It's being used as an easy, strategic level tool to put a lot of pressure on governments," Noonan said. "Even when they know their demands aren't going to be met, it builds support for their movement."

Although Iraqi officials acknowledged that kidnappings have become a serious problem, they said 90 percent of them were motivated by greed, not politics.

While there are rarely public demands for ransoms, backroom financial deals are common, said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the interior minister.

"It's become a good way to make money," Kadhim said. "I can't give any specific numbers because I don't want to encourage it, but from the evidence we have it's substantial."

While kidnappers might prefer to snatch Westerners, if only because they tend to fetch higher ransoms, Interior Ministry officials said everyone was at risk.

"The groups who are doing the kidnapping, they don't differentiate between the foreigners, between the journalists, military and civilians," said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, another ministry spokesman. "They are kidnapping everybody: Iraqi businessmen, rich men, children, women."

The abductions have rattled nonprofit organizations and companies working in Iraq.

"Every day the security situation is changing rapidly," said Hania Mufti, the Baghdad director of Human Rights Watch. "We are in a constant state of assessment."

Mufti, who's been in Iraq since March 2003, said the gradual deterioration of security had made her work increasingly hard.

For her, the kidnapping of two Italian and two Iraqi humanitarian workers on Sept. 8, coupled with Thursday's kidnappings, have raised the ante even higher.

She's less likely to leave Baghdad now, because the roads out of the city have become prime kidnapping spots. And in Baghdad, she's less apt to visit places such as police stations because they're often targets.

"For the time being we are here, but tomorrow I might not give you the same answer," she said.


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