How kidnappers target the locals

Observations on Iraq (1)

In Iraq, nobody is safe. Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, the two Italian aid workers who were kidnapped to order in Baghdad on 7 September, had been firm campaigners against the US-led invasion. As I write, these women, too, face the threat of beheading - and of their deaths being broadcast across the world in a terrorist "snuff movie". Their families and supporters must turn to the prime minister they so distrusted, Silvio Berlusconi, to lead efforts for their release.

Yet the numbers of foreigners who have been kidnapped are nothing compared to the numbers of Iraqis. In Baghdad alone, according to one police estimate, at least 15,000 have been seized since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Even families with quite meagre resources have paid ransoms to rescue captured sons or daughters.

A couple of months ago, I sat with a Baghdad family as they waited for phone calls from a criminal gang which had taken their 23-year-old daughter, Shayma, and threatened "to slit her throat and throw her in a ditch". The family sold all their furniture and possessions and then the father, 62-year-old Harb Nayma, went out alone with $10,000 in his pocket.

After a long night, Shayma returned home safe, but traumatised. It emerged that she had been gang-raped (a detail that the family asked me to report), and still the gang threatened to come back and kidnap another family member. Now they have fled to Jordan, from where they are trying to find asylum in some friendly country. Iraq is suffering a drain of talent, particularly academics and civil servants, and the exiles who might have returned to help rebuild the country have stayed away.

Families such as Shayma's are not some kind of collateral damage: they are the direct victims of a security breakdown that the west has instigated. For that reason, Tony Blair's argument that we should all now sink our differences and concentrate on fighting a new "war" against terrorists misses the complexities of the situation. A high proportion of kidnappings are carried out by criminals - and, according to some, when foreigners are kidnapped, they are simply sold on to the politically driven militants.

Yet there is a palpable feeling that the country is in the grip of real evil - people who will stop at nothing and listen to nothing, who have become drunk on the blood of the heads they have severed. The American claim - that the central battle zone in the "war on terror" has shifted to Iraq - has come true little by little. Ever since George W Bush called on Iraqis to "bring 'em on", foreigners and their money have been taking up his challenge. In Saudi Arabia, I saw funeral notices in the local papers for shuhada (martyrs) who had died fighting in Iraq. They were mostly sons of well-to-do businessmen, and from a generation that grew up expecting everything to be handed to them on a plate in that oil-rich kingdom. Now, the population has burgeoned, the handouts have dwindled and the young men have turned to extremist Islam. In the Iraqi city of Fallujah, foreign fighters control the streets, run hospitals and supervise an entire battalion of potential suicide bombers ready to blow up one poorly paid Iraqi policeman after another.

There are many signs that Iraqis increasingly resent the foreign fighters and their ruthless tactics, recalling how the intimidatory tactics of Palestinian militants in Beirut in the 1980s gradually turned the Lebanese population against them. But it is unlikely that the US and British occupiers can similarly drive a wedge between the natives and the foreigners, causing the latter to be ejected as the Palestinians were from Lebanon.

With national elections due in the New Year and with the Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, pledging to deal with Fallujah by that time, we can expect another assault on the city by US troops, probably after the US elections in November - a sure way, one might think, of ensuring that foreign forces with such names as "the Iraq Horror Group" will remain as welcome as they are now.