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Insurgents widen campaign of intimidation against Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The letters are turning up on more front doors every day: Quit your job, they read, or, in the name of Allah, we will kill you, burn your home and slaughter your family.

In months past, militants usually limited such grim threats—and the bloody violence that reliably follow them—to soldiers, police officers and high-profile public officials.

But the campaign of intimidation has widened to include secretaries, laborers, doctors, drivers, scientists, janitors, seemingly anyone whose paycheck is cut by coalition forces, Western companies or the interim government.

The tactic has deepened the sense that no one in Iraq is safe. It undermines reconstruction efforts as well as basic government functions by terrifying legions of employees into quitting their jobs. And it strikes at the heart of the Bush administration's efforts to rebuild the government and establish its legitimacy.

"Instability is their ally," Michael P. Noonan, a national security fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said of the insurgents. "If they can intimidate people, it creates a sense that the government and the U.S. are impotent."

Physicians and scientists have begun leaving the country in droves, scared off by 100 documented death threats, assassinations and kidnappings of doctors and academics, according to a recent report by Iraq's Health Ministry. The exodus is so severe that it threatens to "abort scientific progress in Iraq," the ministry found.

A number of Iraqi employees have quit their jobs at the British and U.S. embassies out of fear, and the Iraq Project and Contracting Office, which is responsible for the U.S. reconstruction effort, said the intimidation had led to "a loss of Iraqi employees in some areas that has affected construction in these areas."

Western firms doing business in Iraq declined to comment. One U.S. company worried that any extra publicity "will just increase the risk to our employees' safety, and the safety of their families."

No comprehensive statistics are kept on the number of Iraqis who've quit out of fear, and there's no reliable tally of those who've been killed, kidnapped or threatened. But Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, acknowledged that "it is a very serious problem indeed."

Victims have had their children taken hostage, or their homes sprayed with automatic weapons fire. They've been beaten and tortured, and the bodies of those who are killed often are dumped in public places, to serve as a gruesome warning.

Employees who haven't been attacked or threatened conceal their jobs from all but the closest family members; some lie even to their husbands and wives. They take different routes to work, checking to see if they've been followed. Rumors abound of "collaborator lists" drawn up by insurgents.

One woman who's contemplating leaving her job with a Western contractor refused even to talk on the phone.

"You never know who might be listening," she said.

Yet there are many Iraqi employees who said the intimidation campaign had only strengthened their resolve to keep working. Some government departments—such as the police force—have been overwhelmed with recruits despite nonstop insurgent threats and attacks.

"We are ready to sacrifice for our country. I have been threatened by the Mahdi Army. It was a letter. It told me to leave my job, but I will not," said one police officer in Baghdad's al Doura district, who wouldn't give his name.

A spokesman for the Iraq Project and Contracting Office praised the perseverance of Iraqi employees, and said that although the pace of threats had quickened, "we are pressing ahead nonetheless."

"These men and women are excellent workers, dedicated to helping ensure Iraq a bright future," said Col. Jeffrey E. Phillips. "Securing their nation, which will improve the pace of reconstruction, is an essential task we are facing head-on."

But it isn't courage alone that keeps many Iraqis working in jobs that insurgents consider traitorous. The country's staggering 50-plus percent unemployment rate means that anyone who quits a dangerous job risks destitution. Almost no businesses, apart from the government and reconstruction contractors, are hiring.

Perhaps no other group of employees has been targeted as viciously as the Iraqi translators who work for the U.S. military.

At one Baghdad base alone, translators said insurgents had killed 10 of their co-workers. Many of them were tortured first; one was shot dozens of times, another looked as though he'd been strangled, they said. Most of their bodies were dumped just outside the camp walls.

All the translators have had close calls. One 25-year-old returned from work to his home in Baghdad's slum of Sadr City last month to find 15 masked men waiting for him.

They were members of the feared Mahdi Army, rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. Some held rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The others had AK-47 rifles.

"They grabbed my eyes and my arms. They kicked me and punched me in the head," he said.

He was blindfolded, bound, put in the trunk of a waiting car and driven to an unknown location. There, he was beaten some more.

Insurgents had threatened him before, but this time, he was convinced he would die.

"I knew that they would kill me," he said.

He lied to his captors, swearing that he'd quit the translator job months before. After five hours, he had them convinced. He was dropped off, still blindfolded and covered in blood, several blocks from his house.

Instead of quitting his job, the translator quit his old neighborhood. He returned to the American camp, where he'll live indefinitely. Most of the other translators who work at the base live there as well.

One of them, a tight-lipped 60-year-old with 15 grandchildren, agreed to move to the base only after gunmen twice shot up his home with automatic weapons. Translating was considered safe, prestigious work when he took the job more than a year ago, he said. Soldiers had even used their Humvees to drop off Iraqi employees in Baghdad neighborhoods at the end of the day.

That, the translators agreed, would get them killed instantly today. Now, they wear sunglasses, cloak their faces in handkerchiefs and adopt phony accents when on patrol with troops. On the rare occasions when they slip off the base, some disguise themselves in religious garb.

"I can't quit. If I do they will find me and kill me," said the 25-year-old translator, who precedes every mention of the Mahdi Army with an expletive. "I hate the (expletive) Mahdi Army. I hate this life, but maybe it will be better in a year."

Like the other translators, he's expecting the job will help him land a U.S. visa.

"I hope to go to Florida," he said.


(Kerkstra reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha R. Al Awsy, Yasser Salihee and Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)


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