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Kidnap Gangs Add to Iraqis' Insecurity

Christian families are often the targets. U.S. priorities lie elsewhere, victims' relatives say.

August 06, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Stolen from his Baghdad street two weeks ago while playing with friends, Peter Yakob, a mute child of 6, couldn't tell the gang of Iraqi kidnappers his phone number.

For two days, the kidnappers tried to get it from him while the boy's family waited frantically for a message from the criminals.

On the third day, Peter's parents chalked their phone number on an exterior wall of their home. Within 30 minutes, a call came demanding what to them was an unimaginable amount: $50,000.

"When we said we couldn't pay, they said: 'That's your problem. Either pay the money or we'll send him home to you in a sack,' " said Peter's mother, Makdonya Yusuf, 47. After desperate bargaining, the family paid a $15,000 ransom.

In the security vacuum that followed the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, looting came first, followed by carjackings. Now the appearance of highly organized kidnapping gangs sends a worrying message to U.S.-led occupation authorities, suggesting a level of criminal planning and commitment well beyond the spasm of thievery that followed the regime's fall.

The kidnappings have a dark, ruthless quality, often targeting children and teenagers, usually from Iraq's tiny Christian community where no tribal networks exist to fight back against the gangs.

In many cases, the only sons of large middle-income or wealthy families are seized. The abductions, which are often committed in broad daylight, add to Iraqis' sense that nowhere is safe, day or night.

Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is overseeing Iraq's police force, held a briefing Tuesday to announce that a gang of nine kidnappers had been caught Monday in central Baghdad and that several hostages were freed.

He did not mention that the kidnappers killed a female hostage during the operation, carried out by Iraqi police. That fact emerged during questioning of Iraqi officers near the end of the briefing. Kerik said the police conducted the operation without U.S. help, attacking a house at dawn and triggering a gun battle. One suspect was wounded.

Because the Iraqi police force doesn't keep crime statistics, it's difficult to establish exactly how many kidnappings are occurring, but members of the Christian community listed many cases and Kerik said three other gangs had been arrested in recent weeks. Police uniforms were found at the home of those arrested Monday, Kerik said, suggesting that the kidnappers posed as police. He urged Iraqis to report abductions.

But several families of kidnapping victims, interviewed by The Times in Baghdad, said they had approached police or the U.S. military for help but got little or no assistance. Instead, they paid ransoms ranging from $15,000 to $75,000 for the release of loved ones.

"There are so many of these cases in Baghdad," said Adib Yunan, Peter's uncle, a businessman and liquor store owner who bargained the ransom price down. "It's a matter of money, simple money."

Yunan's brother, the boy's father, works in his store and lives in a rental house.

The gangs carefully track their targets, watching the victim's routine and gleaning details of the family's situation and activities.

Yunan and his brother went to a police station in the Hay Mikhaniq neighborhood seeking help. U.S. military police are stationed in all Iraqi police stations.

"We went to the police and saw the Americans. An American told us, 'What can we do?' " he said, a complaint echoed by other families of victims.

He said that after he provided information and pictures of the boy to American MPs and Iraqi police, the Americans promised to keep in touch. But his family heard nothing more and resolved the case itself by paying the ransom.

During his ordeal, Peter, who can communicate with his family but not with strangers, often cried. Ali, one of the kidnappers, would hold a gun to his head, screaming that if the boy didn't quiet down he would kill him.

Makdonya Yusuf got her son back four days after he was taken. But the formerly happy boy had changed. He was confused and seemed drugged. At night he lay awake, frightened.

"My son used to be carefree, but now he's nervous and terrified," she said. "He can't sleep. He shouts: 'Ali is coming! Ali is coming to take me!' " She has pinned a medallion of Christ to his pillow so that he can kiss it to help him sleep.

Emanuel Lirato is a patriarch with a motorcycle business he started 55 years ago. His son Maher, 50, an epileptic, was kidnapped July 20 when a car with heavily armed bandits cut him off as he reached the family business by car.

Lirato went to the police and stopped a military convoy for assistance, but he said neither gave him real help.

The U.S. soldiers in the convoy asked him what they could do. "I said: 'You have to decide. You're in charge.' " They searched the streets and shops in the neighborhood, but then gave up, he said.

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