Independent insurgents?

Iraqis aren't sure who killed aid worker Margaret Hassan. Those responsible "don't play by the rules of kidnapping."

Published November 18, 2004 3:08PM (EST)

Iraqi authorities Wednesday admitted they still had no clear idea about who killed aid worker Margaret Hassan. Investigators are being hindered by the uniqueness of the case and the complexity of the insurgency. In previous kidnappings, Iraq's several insurgent groups have been quick to identify themselves and claim responsibility, using videos to make their demands. From the moment Hassan was seized her case was different.

Hassan, who had Iraqi nationality and spoke fluent Arabic, was taken from her car as she drove to work at the Care offices in Baghdad on Oct. 19. Two videos emerged, showing her in an increasingly desperate state pleading for her life and asking for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.

At one point her kidnappers described themselves as an "armed Islamic group." But unlike in previous kidnappings they gave themselves no specific name and used no banners or flags to identify themselves. Again in the final video showing her apparent death, shot in the head by a masked gunman, there was no insignia to identify a particular group.

Efforts were made to begin negotiations with her kidnappers, but to no avail. Information campaigns were started and a poster showing Hassan holding a sick Iraqi child was put up on billboards across Baghdad. "Margaret Hassan is truly a daughter of Iraq. She is against the occupation," they read.

Her kidnappers were unmoved. At one point they threatened to hand her over to Tawhid and Jihad, the extreme militant group based in Fallujah that is led by a young Iraqi named Omar Hadid and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the wanted Jordanian militant. But Tawhid and Jihad, which has produced several videos of gruesome murders, including that of Ken Bigley, the British contractor, promised to release Hassan if she were handed over to them.

Her case appears to confirm accounts from figures in the insurgency that the movement is made up of several independent groups with little overall leadership and frequently different methods and agendas. It is most likely she was captured by a radical Sunni Islamic group, since they form the core of the violent guerrilla movement that has fought the U.S. occupation. Among them are several better known groups, including Tawhid and Jihad, which now calls itself al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as the Islamic Army, Ansar al-Sunna, the First Army of Mohammad and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

But there appear to be other smaller offshoots. For some, their agenda appears to be simply to force the U.S. military and all other Westerners from Iraq and to destabilize the Baghdad government into collapse.

Most were based in Fallujah, at least until the U.S. military operation last week, but have bases elsewhere, including Baghdad and the town of Latifiya, south of the capital. The mutilated body of a woman, apparently a Westerner, was found on a street in Fallujah last week. British officials said Wednesday they have yet to determine whether it was Hassan.

Canon Andrew White, of Coventry Cathedral and the international director of the Iraqi Institute of Peace, was involved in negotiations to obtain Hassan's release. He said that "rogue terrorist groups" had begun to emerge and that her kidnappers were "very likely criminal."

"One of the worrying things about the development of the whole kidnapping scenario is that we are no longer dealing with the established groups, where at least we understood something of their methodology. Now kidnapping is the kind of thing taken up by any kind of rogue terrorist group," he told the Guardian Wednesday night from Dubai. "They don't play by the rules of kidnapping."

He said the situation in Iraq appeared increasingly out of control. "It is very difficult to have any sense of where things are going. I don't think there will be any magical cure to the tragedy at the moment." He said elections should still be held. "It is really important to push ahead with the plans, otherwise the insurgents will say they have won. They are trying to prevent any sort of order being reestablished."

The leadership of the insurgent groups is predominantly Iraqi, though there are other Arab fighters involved at lower levels. Some of their agendas are regarded as too extreme even by mainstream insurgent figures.

By Rory McCarthy

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