The remaining international aid agencies in Iraq are reportedly considering pulling out of the country after the kidnapping of four humanitarian workers, including two Italian women, from their headquarters in Baghdad.
Jean-Dominique Bunel, a coordinator for the agencies, said the abduction on Tuesday had already prompted some aid workers to leave and others would follow by the end of the week. "We are reviewing the situation," he told Reuters. Speaking to Agence France-Presse, he said: "It seems that most of the international nongovernmental organizations are preparing to leave Iraq and some expatriate [staff] already left this morning. "More will follow in coming days. The flights are full until Friday."
Bunel said he was speaking for about 50 international agencies operating in Iraq. He said he had no idea who had abducted the Italian women, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who work for Bridge to Baghdad, an organization helping children across the country.
However, an Iraqi militant group called Ansar al-Zawahri said it had kidnapped the women. In a message posted on an Islamist Web site, the group claimed that "this is the first of our attacks against Italy." The name Partisans of Zawahri appears to refer to Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri. But there were doubts last night about the authenticity of the statement, which made no demands.
Virtually all major aid organizations have already left Iraq because of the deteriorating security situation, including the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières.
Those that have stayed have had to reassess the situation because of the nature of this week's kidnapping, which involved 20 gunmen bursting into the organization's office on Tuesday afternoon in central Baghdad. It marked a change in strategy by hostage takers, who had not previously targeted aid workers or women, except for one Japanese woman. Most hostages have been captured on roads and in conflict zones outside the capital.
In Italy yesterday, friends and colleagues of the women expressed shock, and the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called on left-wing opposition leaders to stand with the right in the face of the crisis. Berlusconi was said to be "aghast and flabbergasted" that women were being harmed because "Islam teaches that they are sacred."
In a statement, opposition leaders repeated their opposition to the war in Iraq and Italy's military presence there, but said the priority was to save the hostages.
The deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, said the kidnapping showed that "terrorists had made a quantum leap in their strategy." Roberto Calderoli, a cabinet minister in Berlusconi's center-right government, described the attack as "a declaration of war against the West" because Iraqi rebels made no distinction between military and civilian foreigners in their country.
The Italian media broadcast footage of the women playing with children in Iraq and talking of their passion for their work. The newspaper Corriere della Sera said the kidnappers probably "knew perfectly well" what the women did and kidnapped them "to show they don't distinguish" between aid workers and soldiers.
Pope John Paul joined in a prayer for their release with pilgrims at his general audience, and a Vatican newspaper headline said: "Women of peace are hostages of war." Leaders of the Muslim community in Italy addressed the nation through Vatican radio, condemning the attack, calling for the women to be released and repeating that their capture goes against Islamic teaching.
This kidnapping comes 10 days after the murder of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, who was kidnapped while traveling to Najaf with the Italian Red Cross. Italy rejected the demand from his kidnappers, calling themselves the Islamic army of Iraq, that it pull its troops out of Iraq. Berlusconi's government has been heavily criticized over his negotiations to free Baldoni.
Wednesday night a Web site published a photograph that it said showed the missing journalist's body. The picture showed a bearded figure resembling Baldoni, bloodied or dirtied and lying on the ground. There was no immediate independent verification of the picture.