Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Kidnappings No Longer News in Iraq

Many Iraqis are seemingly too preoccupied by their own kidnapping fears to mourn Margaret Hassan.
By Omar Anwar

The apparent death of British aid worker Margaret Hassan sparked an outcry in the western media and was loudly condemned by foreign diplomats and politicians, but the response to the execution was rather more muted in Iraq itself.

While most Iraqis expressed their sympathy for Hassan and her family immediately after her capture, there was no hint of public outcry from either the Arab media or the Iraqi people following recent reports of her death.

Kidnappings and killings have become a way of life for ordinary Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, while mistrust of westerners, including those working for aid agencies, is growing.

Hassan’s case drew particular attention in the western press because of her long standing personal commitment to the country, being married to an Iraqi and having spent several decades working on behalf of Iraqi children.

Yet while most overseas attention has focused on the 160 foreigners taken hostage, unofficial estimates say thousands of Iraqis have been captured and held for ransom by criminal gangs and Islamic militant groups.

The scale of the problem facing Iraqis, it seems, means there is just not much room left over to accord one particular case the sympathy it deserves.

When close relatives of prime minister Iyad Allawi were kidnapped two weeks ago, many took that as a sign that no one was beyond the kidnappers' reach.

The police, meanwhile, are seen as toothless to act against these crimes, which are carried out either by thugs motivated by easy money or by religious groups determined to track down and punish so-called coalition collaborators.

In many cases, families prefer not to involve the authorities, arranging for money to be handed over for the release of their loved one, in the hope that they will be seen to have paid their dues and be left alone.

Businessmen and their families are popular targets, although anyone who looks like they have money is at risk. Some jewelry stores say business has all but collapsed since the end of the war, with people afraid to be seen buying luxury goods in case they are seen as wealthy and fall prey to the kidnappers.

Islamic militant groups have also pursued doctors, university professors and the educated middle classes in an apparent effort to purge the country of those most able to advance its reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The resulting uncertainty means that a large section of the country's elite, especially expatriates who returned to their country with high hopes of making a new start in the immediate aftermath of the war, are leaving once again.

The Kurdish owner of a telecommunications business moved his family to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan after an Islamic group posted a death threat under his door.

Others plan to sit out the next few months in Jordan, in the hope the situation will be brought under control, although some have said they will never return.

There is little pattern to the hostage-taking. Some victims have been released without money changing hands, others have been killed even after ransoms were paid.

Demands of up to 500,000 US dollars have been received for some victims and although these sums are normally bargained down, tens of thousands of dollars have been paid over the past 18 months.

Many of the Iraqis taken hostage by Islamic groups are still missing.

Not surprisingly then, the kidnapping of foreigners has been treated with growing ambivalence by many Iraqis, for whom the line between occupying force and civilian is becoming increasingly blurred.

Foreign non-government organisations, NGOs, are increasingly perceived as part of the United States-led military apparatus, or as covert operations secretly training Iraqis to become agents for overseas governments. Thirty years of a state-propagated culture of paranoia aren't easily shrugged off, and even IWPR staff have been accused of spying for the Americans.

As a result, most NGOs have either withdrawn from the country or relocated their headquarters to Jordan.

The apparent death of Margaret Hassan is a tragedy for her family and colleagues, and for the broader international aid community. Right now, many Iraqis are having to focus on their own tragedies.

Omar Anwar is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad, Sarah Tosh is IWPR editor/trainer in Iraq.