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[casi] Kidnap Gangs Add to Iraqis' Insecurity

"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.",1,377

August 6, 2003

Kidnap Gangs Add to Iraqis' Insecurity

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

By 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

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

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

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.

His son was chained to a wall in a room for five days. Lirato paid a $25,000
ransom, but the gang still did not hand over his son. Instead they increased
their price to $300,000.

"We kept negotiating. We agreed on $50,000 in addition to the $25,000,"
Lirato said. Now he wants armed guards to escort him to work, but ordinary
Iraqi citizens cannot carry guns.

"Ninety percent of cases are Christians, because they know Christian people
are calm and won't make trouble," Lirato said. "They just want their beloved
ones to come back home, so they create no difficulties. But Muslim families
might resist."

Lirato blamed coalition authorities for the frequent kidnappings, saying
they had dismantled the old security structures without putting something in
their place.

"They abolished the army, the security forces and the police," he said. "So
they gave the bad guys a chance to make the best of this chaos and lack of
security. They made it easy for them to commit their crimes.

"I think the gang will come again and maybe this time they'll take me, not
my son," he said. "If things get worse, I'll have to leave Iraq."

Adib Yunan, Peter's uncle, said Hussein's release of prisoners before the
war planted the seeds of the crime spree. "This is the aftermath of two or
three wars," he said. "There are so many men who have no job, so they resort
to the simplest way to get money."

Adnan Issa, a restaurant owner, paid $15,000 for the release of his only
son, Rani, 17, kidnapped by gunmen who jumped into his taxi one recent
morning. The gang initially demanded $120,000 and only relented after the
family produced documents to prove that their house is rented.

"My husband was completely shocked. He couldn't do anything. Mary the Virgin
gave me the strength to carry on and negotiate the matter," said Rani's
mother, Suaad Jibro, who tearfully begged and bargained with the gang on the

She said she and her husband were too frightened to contact police even
after they recovered their son for fear of retaliation by the gang. Now they
are desperate to sell the family restaurant and flee Iraq.

"These robberies and kidnappings are happening at daytime," Adnan Issa said.
"The Americans' priority is to capture Saddam Hussein and guarantee their
own safety."

The day Rani went missing, his parents approached U.S. soldiers who were
searching the neighborhood to ask for help. "They told me: 'It's not our
business.' " Issa said. " 'We're here to search for Saddam Hussein.' "

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