BAGHDAD - A new wave of kidnappings has sent shock waves through the diplomatic and business communities in Baghdad, virtually shutting down most embassies and thwarting Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's efforts to drum up international support for his fledgling government.
Insurgents kidnapped two Jordanian truck drivers yesterday, the latest in a string of abductions, the most brazen of which was the daylight seizure of a heavily guarded Egyptian diplomat on Friday. He was released unharmed yesterday.
The latest hostage-takers, an Islamic group calling itself the Mujahedeen Corps, repeated now-familiar conditions for the release of the Jordanians: Their employer must cease work in Iraq or the men will be dead within 72 hours, according to a video shown on Arabic-language satellite television. Similar demands were made for many of the 13 hostages grabbed by insurgents in the last week.
The kidnapping epidemic underscores the inability of Iraqi and U.S. security forces to rein in an insurgency that has turned to hostage-taking as a high-profile way of spreading its views and derailing political and reconstruction progress in Iraq.
Allawi has beseeched nations not to bow to kidnappers' demands and was furious with the Philippines for its decision last week to withdraw its 51-member peacekeeping force from Iraq to spare the life of a Filipino captive.
Iraqi government officials say the abductions are damaging reconstruction efforts and are hurting Allawi's effort to get help with security from Arab nations. Foreign companies - particularly transport firms - say the kidnappings have driven up the cost of doing business and made it tougher to find employees.
Citizens from at least 20 nations have been seized by kidnappers in recent months. About 60 people have been held, and at least three were beheaded.
The current hostages include two Pakistani drivers for a Kuwaiti-based firm who were abducted Friday, and three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian who worked as truck drivers and were kidnapped together Wednesday. Yesterday, their captors extended a deadline to give the employer of the drivers time to meet their demands.
The abduction Friday of the senior Egyptian diplomat moved the hostage crisis to a new level. Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb was abducted as he left a mosque in Baghdad; his captors said he was targeted because Egypt had agreed to send security experts to aid the new Iraqi government.
He was released late yesterday, apparently after the captors realized Egypt was not sending troops to Iraq, according to wire reports. Shortly before he was released, the Arabic-language satellite news channel Al-Jazeera read a statement from the kidnappers saying they had decided to release Qutb because he was a religious man and had good morals.
Foreign envoys were clearly shaken by the kidnapping. Even though their embassies are protected by concrete walls in upscale neighborhoods, diplomats were hesitant even to respond to reporters' questions. More armed guards and armored vehicles were visible yesterday.
The embassies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates were shuttered. A Vietnamese Embassy spokesman grimaced when asked about the hostage crisis and quickly showed journalists the door. A Pakistani envoy was first willing to address the hostage situation but declined five minutes later after consulting with senior embassy officials. An Iraqi worker at the Hungarian mission said the staff must first study media requests.
At the German Embassy, no Germans were available for comment. An Iraqi guard, who was relaying media requests by radio to the embassy staff behind locked doors, offered his observations.
"They are now terrified," said the guard, who identified himself only as Raed. "They receive no guests, not even journalists. They've started to suspect everybody. Their movements are restricted to a minimum."
Iraqi government officials denounced the Philippines' troop withdrawal and urged other governments to not bow to the kidnappers' demands.
"This phenomenon is contrary to the values of Iraqi society and the principles of Islam," interim Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told the Al-Arabiya satellite channel yesterday. "We will strongly confront these criminal networks and act to release these innocent people."
Copyright 1996-2004 Knight Ridder.