Armed militias have kidnapped dozens of foreign nationals in Iraq, in a new tactic intended to crack the U.S.-led coalition a year into the occupation.
Ground zero for the kidnappings: the road from Baghdad to besieged Fallujah. That highway, already perilous, has turned into a road of terror. Over the past two weeks, masked men have abducted about 40 foreigners from 12 countries at checkpoints near Fallujah and Ramadi. Almost two dozen are still being held.
The stakes ratcheted dramatically higher on Thursday with the news that kidnappers had executed an Italian hostage, security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi. He was the first hostage known to have been executed. His captors had demanded that the U.S. withdraw from Iraq.
Thirty-three-year-old Abu Tahseen was driving three Japanese nationals -- two aid workers and a journalist -- when they were kidnapped on April 7. Their captors, a previously unknown group called the Mujahideen Squadrons, demanded that Japan withdraw its noncombatant units from Iraq or it would burn the hostages alive.
On Thursday, the hostages were released after about a week in captivity, following intensive mediation spearheaded by tribal leaders and Sunni clerics. But their terrified driver is still hiding in Thawrah, a densely populated Shiite quarter of Baghdad.
Abu Tahseen said that masked men armed with AK-47 automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stopped him, rounded up his passengers and drove them away in a Nissan pickup.
"The kidnappers threatened to kill me if they saw me on the road again," Abu Tahseen told his visitors. The driver, who has 14 children, now plans to sell his car.
Taxi driver Abdul Baset said at least four militant groups have set up checkpoints near Al Tharthar Bridge, some 40 kilometers into a desert detour forced by U.S. closure of the main highway.
"From their dialect, we could tell the masked men came from Fallujah and neighboring towns," Abdul Baset told this reporter. "They stop each and every car to verify the nationality of passengers."
The armed men, working with interpreters, allow Iraqis and Arab nationals to pass and reluctantly let go Iraqis with foreign nationalities.
"They rounded up one Iraqi with a British passport and two with Canadian travel documents, but they stopped short of kidnapping them," said another driver, Hossam.
On Wednesday, kidnappers released a French television journalist. The journalist, visibly shaken and exhausted after a four-day ordeal, said his captors threatened to cut his throat and accused him of being an Israeli spy. He said his captors switched his locations eight times, passing him from one armed group to another.
The same day that the three Japanese hostages were freed, two other Japanese, a journalist and an activist, were kidnapped. Their fate is still unknown.
Nikkan Berita, a Japanese freelancer writer and peace activist who flew from Baghdad to Amman late on Wednesday, said that his two compatriots may have been kidnapped near Fallujah.
"I met Watanabi and Yasuda on Friday in the Al Sadr quarter of Baghdad," said Berita, 28. "Both men seemed anxious to visit Fallujah but I warned them it was extremely risky."
Both Watanabi and Yasuda were opposed to Japan's military involvement in Iraq, Berita said.
The exact nature of the armed groups, which sprang up seemingly out of nowhere in the last week as U.S. forces launched an assault on Fallujah, remains unclear. They appear to be made up of militant tribesmen angered by the U.S. occupation, but may also include road bandits acting in part out of political motivations. The degree to which the groups are commanded from above, or coordinate their activities with other groups, is unclear.
Whatever their identity, the kidnappers' intention is clearly to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies, many of which are already only shakily committed to their mission in postwar Iraq. "By kidnapping foreigners, resistance fighters are carrying the political battle to democratic countries allied with the U.S., hoping to shake their will to go to war," explained Liqaa Mekki, a journalist and political analyst in Baghdad. The fact that Japanese and Italian hostages have been taken (both countries are U.S. allies in the war) supports this hypothesis.
So far, none of the U.S. allies have yielded to the kidnappers' demands. (However, Russia, not part of the coalition, began evacuating 800 specialists after three Russian and five Ukrainian employees of a Russian energy company were kidnapped from their house this week. The hostages were later released.) But the kidnapping spree has heightened the sense of chaos and disorder roiling Iraq and further burdened the U.S. military, already engaged in a two-front battle against the followers of the Shiite rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in Najaf, and in the explosive Sunni triangle, including the embattled city of Fallujah.
Some of the kidnappers had threatened to execute their hostages if their nations of origin do not withdraw from Iraq, but none had carried out the threat until the grim news came that the Italian hostage had been slain. (The Al-Jazeera broadcast company said it had video of his killing, but did not show it because it was too bloody.)
Four private U.S. contractors have been missing since their convoy was attacked last Friday. One of them, Thomas Hamill, a 43-year-old truck driver for the giant firm Halliburton, was abducted. His captors threatened to kill him on Sunday unless the U.S. called off its assault on Fallujah. The deadline passed; Hamill's fate is unknown. U.S. experts are conducting tests on four bodies found west of Baghdad to find out if they are the remains of the missing U.S. citizens.
Not only Westerners are at risk on the road between Amman and Baghdad. U.S. soldiers shot and killed two Jordanian merchants on the road to Baghdad, raising to 10 the number of Jordanians gunned down on "the road of terror."
Iraqi motorists who frequent the road say that two German security guards who went missing last week on the road, and are almost certainly dead, were probably killed in a crossfire or when returning fire. (The Sunday Telegraph of London published bloody photographs that are believed to be of the two men.) The motorists rule out the possibility that the two Germans could have been gunned down in cold blood.
Al-Jazeera also reported three days ago that an American was killed on the road, but did not reveal his identity.
The wave of kidnappings and killings came as U.S. troops cracked down on Fallujah, a city of roughly 400,000 people. U.S. authorities said the drive into Fallujah was intended to find those responsible for killing and mutilating four private U.S. military contractors in early April. But Fallujans, many of whom profited from Saddam Hussein's regime and were already bitterly opposed to the U.S. occupation, see the campaign as a vendetta and accuse the Americans of killing hundreds of civilians.
"There is no other option but to fight back. We lost more than 600 lives and the Americans are there to break our bones," said one Fallujah resident. He said that many of the casualties were women and children. Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have reported similar numbers of casualties. The percentage of the dead who are noncombatants is unknown. Images of dead women and children broadcast on Arab stations like Al-Jazeera have inflamed outrage throughout Iraq and the Arab world.
The U.S. launched its offensive after Fallujah residents refused to hand over suspects in the killing and burning of the four U.S. nationals.
"We already condemned that atrocity, but we do not know who was behind it. Moreover, Arab and Muslim traditions do not allow us to turn over any fugitive seeking asylum in our midst," said a tribal sheik in Fallujah. He called on the U.S. to understand the local culture and language of indigenous tribesmen.
Fallujans say their simmering rage at the U.S. occupation boiled over when an Israeli missile killed Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the group that killed and mutilated the four U.S. security guards called itself the "Phalanges of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin."
"We are all under similar occupations and colonial rules," said a 50-year-old woman in Fallujah. "The U.S. troops are wreaking havoc in Iraq and Israeli fighter jets are killing Palestinian fighters in Palestine."
Iraqis -- and Arabs and Muslims in general -- are increasingly echoing these sentiments, linking Israel's occupation of the Palestinians with the American occupation of Iraq. This is an ominous development for the United States as it fights against time to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis.
The root cause of the recent upsurge in violence, many Iraqis say, is the heavy-handedness of the U.S. occupation -- including systematic allied raids and the detention of nearly 10,000 Iraqis from Mosul to Basra. They say the escalating violence is likely to spread to other regions if the U.S. maintains its current iron-fist approach to Iraq.
In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 85 miles north of Baghdad, dozens of former army and intelligence officers threatened to join the resistance if they failed to find jobs and freedom.
"We lost our jobs and U.S. soldiers are hassling us day and night, leaving us with no choice but to take up arms against the American Army," said a well-trained Republican Guard officer.
Many observers believe that wrongheaded U.S. decisions have fueled anti-American sentiment and ignited the militant reaction across the country.
"The American ruling body, led by Paul Bremer and his predecessor, Gen. Jay Garner, has made so many wrong decisions, further exacerbating a volatile situation," said a high-ranking Jordanian official. "The decisions ran counter to each and every piece of advice we offered them following the liberation of Baghdad on April 9."
The crucial mistakes, he said, were dismantling Iraq's 500,000-strong army and key ministries such as the information and defense portfolios. "By shutting down the army, the Americans sent into the streets or into hideouts thousands of angry, highly skilled soldiers who mobilized just to snipe at U.S. troops," the official lamented.
Qeis Abdur Rahman Aref, the son of former Iraqi President Abdur Rahman Aref, was not initially opposed to the U.S. intervention, and even offered the Americans advice on how to deal with angry Iraqis in his hometown of Fallujah. But the 55-year-old businessman, who is close to politicians and former generals in Iraq, defended the kidnappings as a legitimate tool of the Iraqi resistance. "They had to resort to kidnapping to tilt the balance of power away from the invading army," he said. "They had no other option to defend their vulnerable cities."
Abdur Rahman said he did not support executing the prisoners, but said the kidnappings were justified by the crisis. "Even the U.S. administration rounded up Americans of Japanese origin during World War II," he said.