Gangsters operate own prisons as kidnapping soars in Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

15 January 2004


Kidnapping is now the crime of choice among gangsters in Baghdad.

Colonel Feisal Ali, a veteran Baghdad policeman, said: "Criminals who used to steal gold and jewellery now specialise in kidnapping because it is easier and more profitable. Some actually maintain their own private prisons."

Even the very moderately wealthy in Baghdad are terrified that kidnappers will strike at them or their families. They drive their children to school fearing that, otherwise, they will be seized at the school bus stop. Some of the richer businessmen have sent their children out of the country to Jordan or the Gulf.

Col Ali, the head of the anti-kidnap unit of the Iraqi police - which has 17 officers and 15 men - said that kidnapping really got under way in June.

Criminals, many of them released by Saddam Hussein under an amnesty in 2002, realised that the police force had collapsed. He said: "Before the war, kidnapping made up only about 1 per cent of serious crime, but now it is 70 per cent." Even criminals themselves are not safe. Col Ali said he had arrested a man the previous day who confessed to having kidnapped another criminal who had looted a bank during the fall of Baghdad in April. He only released the bank robber in return for $10,000 (£5,400).

Kidnappers have also become more professional. They often insist that the family of the kidnap victim purchase a Thuraya satellite telephone through which to conduct negotiations, because the call is impossible for the Baghdad police to trace.

Many of the victims are children. Eleven-year-old Sara was grabbed as she waited for a bus and held in a room with four other kidnap victims while kidnappers asked her father for $20,000, later reduced to $5,000. She was released but is traumatised by the experience.

Not everybody survives. The owner of an animal food factory in east Baghdad was kidnapped. According to a member of his family, $7,000 was demanded and paid after three months. The relative said: "But all we got back was his dead body and we think they killed him just after he was captured."

Some victims have disappeared. While we were waiting in another part of the police headquarters, a woman dressed in black accompanied by two children said her husband had been an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein and had been kidnapped three months before. She had received one phone call asking for $50,000 but, otherwise, there was silence.

Col Ali admitted that the families of most kidnap victims do not tell the police what has happened because they fear their relatives will be killed if they do so. Asked how he would deal with organised crime, he said, showing a certain nostalgia for the methods of the old regime: "I would hang those responsible for kidnapping in front of their own houses and I am confident that crime would be reduced to 10 per cent of its present level." The serious crime organisation of the Iraqi police is housed in a school in the Amariyah quarter of Baghdad because their old headquarters was destroyed. Several weeks ago the new premises was attacked by two suicide bombers, though without effect, and is protected by an obstacle course of concrete barriers and containers filled with earth.

The police headquarters still has an improvised air but the police said they are now receiving vehicles, weapons and flak jackets from the Americans. Some complain that no sooner have they sent criminals to Abu Ghraib prison than they are released by the US. But Colonel Anwar Abdul Jabbar, the head of the organised crime division of the police, said: "I have arrested 400 criminals and I don't know any that have been released from Abu Ghraib without my knowledge. This is really just an excuse used by policemen who don't have a case."

The campaign against organised crime in Iraq is largely supervised by the US. American military police officers could be seen stomping in and out of police offices at Amariyah. At one moment, a thick American accent could be heard bellowing angrily on the other side of a partition wall, shouting: "Don't you realise we are working our arses off for you!" An Iraqi policeman, giggling slightly, confided later that the relative of a kidnap victim had told the American officer that Iraq was better off under Saddam, precipitating the outburst.