Insurgents in Iraq step up seizures of hostages

Posted in Iraq | 26-Jul-04 | Author: James Glanz| Source: The New York Times

An Iraqi wounded during a clash between insurgents and Iraqi and American forces yesterday north of Baghdad was treated at a hospital.
BAGHDAD As insurgents moved with rapidly increasing sophistication to develop hostage-taking as their most powerful weapon against foreign nations in Iraq, two Pakistanis working for a Kuwaiti-based company were believed kidnapped on Sunday, and fresh threats against other countries warned that their citizens were at risk unless they pulled out as well.

The U.S. military also reported that 13 insurgents had been killed by American and Iraqi forces in a major battle north of Baghdad that involved small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery. No Iraqi or American fighters were reported killed.

The missing Pakistanis, a truck driver and an engineer working for the Al-Tamimi Group, vanished as they were driving to Baghdad along heavily traveled supply routes. In an often-repeated scene that the insurgents seem to rely on to apply pressure, the family of one of the missing men made an emotional appeal for his release from their village 88 kilometers, or 55 miles, south of Islamabad, Reuters reported.

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

In another display of their increasing skill, hostage-takers seized an Egyptian diplomat as he left a mosque on Friday.

Three days before, insurgents enjoyed perhaps their greatest tactical success when they released a Filipino hostage, Angelo dela Cruz, after his government pulled 51 Filipino soldiers and police officers out of the country.

The insurgents - in what has also become a standard, if macabre, technique - had threatened to behead dela Cruz if his countrymen did not pull out.

About 20 foreigners are either being held hostage or have already been killed by their captors in 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 that criticizes what Jabbar calls the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq.

"It's very easy to kidnap foreigners in Iraq," Jabbar said. "It doesn't cost them anything," he said of 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 Sada conceded that each hostage turned into a highly visible statement by the insurgents that Iraq is a dangerous place to live and work.

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

The firefight between insurgents and the American and Iraqi forces took place at Buhritz, 50 kilometers north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It followed a raid by the Iraqis in farm country there.

U.S. troops participated in the battle with artillery fire, observation aircraft and soldiers who were described as "providing security" during the fighting.

But the taking of hostages has emerged as the low-tech analog of the American "nuclear option" - a weapon of unparalleled power, and one so effective that even the threat of using it carries great influence.

The 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, while others 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 terrorists' point of view, of being cheap and almost entirely free of the risk that insurgents run when they confront American or Iraqi troops directly in the field.

The personal nature of the tactic, usually involving video of the individual hostages with their captors and the grotesque threat of beheading, also ensures that each incident is given enormous exposure in the international media.

As demonstrated by the pullout of the Filipino soldiers, which took place in the face of overwhelming public pressure in the Philippines to save 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 are 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 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.