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Kidnappings Aimed at Undermining Iraqi Reconstruction - 2004-08-01

Scores of foreign workers have been abducted in Iraq in recent weeks. There does not seem to be any single group coordinating the campaign, but it has affected the reconstruction effort by scaring away companies and individual workers.

The latest count of foreigners kidnapped in Iraq is well over 70. At least eight of the hostages have been killed. Two have escaped, and nearly 40 have been released, often after their countries or the companies they worked for made concessions to the abductors. In one recent case, a Filipino truck driver was freed, after the Philippines agreed to withdraw its small contingent of troops from Iraq.

The most recent wave of kidnappings has included demands that foreign companies working on Iraqi reconstruction stop all their activities in the country. Several have complied, in order to save their employees lives.

On a visit to Baghdad Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the hostage-taking campaign is affecting the reconstruction effort.

"These kinds of violent actions certainly do have a deterring effect, with respect to nations providing troops, or to progress with the reconstruction effort," he said. "But we have to keep them very much in perspective. These are criminals, these are murderers, these are terrorists who are killing innocent people, who have come to Iraq to help the Iraqi people to a better life."

Although the kidnapping of foreigners usually makes the headlines, scores of Iraqis have also been abducted and held for ransom. A wide variety of groups appear to be behind the abductions, and for different reasons. Iraqi Interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh says the government takes the entire situation very seriously.

"There are a number of elements who are involved in this hostage taking," said Mr. Saleh. "Undoubtedly, some of them are these extremist terrorist groups, but also organized crime, who are doing this thing for ransom. But I can assure you that the government and the security agencies are working hard to make sure that we deal with this problem."

Both Mr. Saleh and Secretary Powell urged countries affected by the hostage crisis to stand firm, and not give in to the kidnappers' demands, which Mr. Saleh says only makes the problem worse.

"I want to reaffirm that this process in Iraq of reconstruction, and helping the people of Iraq build a democracy in the heart of the Islamic Middle East is not an easy proposition," he said. "Iraqi people need help. But those who would come to help us, hopefully, understand that they must not be deterred by the acts of criminals, because acceding to their demands can only lead to the greater threat to all civilized community of nations."

In one high-profile case, an Iraqi tribal sheikh has been acting as a mediator between the Kuwaiti company that employed seven foreign truck drivers and the shadowy group that kidnapped them. Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaymi told VOA he disagrees with the tactic of hostage taking.

He says, "I think this is a bad way for them to express their views. They could do better by working through their tribal leaders, or their local officials." He says kidnapping is not accepted by Iraqi society, and kidnappers should change their ways, if they want people to respect them.

Sheikh al-Dulaymi could never be accused of being overly friendly toward the Americans. He runs a group called the Association of Victims of the American Occupation. He conducts television interviews standing in front of a white banner painted with the image of a hooded man standing on a box, with electrodes wired to his body. It is one of the notorious photographs of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Despite the sheik's opposition to the U.S.-led occupation, he says holding talks with the U.S.-led coalition has produced results.

He says, "I have opened a dialogue with the Americans and told them about our traditions, our customs, our habits. And the Americans, I think they respect this, and they have changed their style with us."

The sheikh would recommend dialogue rather than abduction for those who have a grievance against the coalition. But clearly there are armed groups who see the kidnapping tactic as effective, and for the time being, it remains one of Iraq's top security concerns.

The tactic is having a psychological effect on almost every foreigner working in Iraq, limiting the activities of contractors and journalists alike. The rash of kidnappings has made everyone seem like a potential threat. When a VOA reporter was interviewing the owner of a clothing store earlier this week, she grew nervous when the empty shop suddenly filled up with men. It turned out that they were only shopping for shirts.