Children's doctor among latest victims of Iraq kidnap epidemic

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Salah Mehdi Hamza, a popular children's doctor who had been kidnapped in Baghdad, was killed even though his family handed over a $40,000 (£20,000) ransom and a box full of jewels and gold ornaments to the gang who seized him.

Kidnappers have preyed on Iraqis for three-and-a-half years, holding thousands in safe houses and basements while desperate relatives try to raise the money for their release. Often they kill their victims despite receiving a ransom. Fear of abduction as much as anything has forced 1.8 million Iraqis, including the best-educated and richest, to flee the country.

People who try to help others are the most vulnerable. Dr Hamza was in his clinic in the al-Khudat district of west Baghdad on 16 January when a man knocked on the door and said a woman was in a car downstairs, too sick to move. The doctor grabbed his bag and went to see her. When he got to the car, a gun was stuck in his back and he was taken away.

His kidnappers at first demanded $100,000 but his relatives could only raise $40,000 in cash. They added his wife's wedding ornaments. The ransom was taken by a group of women, all teachers at the Shatt al-Arab primary school where his mother is the headmistress. They went to al-Likaa Square near al-Askan Children's Hospital, as the kidnappers had demanded. No men were among those bringing the ransom because it was feared they too might be kidnapped.

The kidnappers promised that the doctor would be released the next day. Instead, Dr Hamza's body was found on 20 January beside the road in Fourth Street, a four-lane highway in the Yarmouk district of west Baghdad. His was one of some 40 bodies, many of them tortured, found in Baghdad that day.

The killing of Dr Hamza illustrates the nightmare of violence that touches everybody in Iraq. A tall man of about 40, he had been a paediatrician in the Yarmouk hospital but also had his own clinic, always open between 11am and 5pm. He was known to be a good doctor who charged only about 3,000 Iraqi dinars (£1.20) for a consultation.

The doctor was Shia, though his mother Fadiya is a Sunni, as is his wife, Zena, also a doctor. His sectarian background may have been important since he was living in a predominantly Sunni neighbourhood - but Baghdad kidnappers abduct anybody who they believe has money.

It is a measure of the violence in Baghdad that Dr Hamza had been kidnapped twice before. The first time was for three weeks when he was forcibly taken to Fallujah, the Sunni insurgent stronghold, to tend the wounded. The second time, his family was forced to pay $20,000 for his return.

Nor was he the only member of his family affected by violence. Fadiya had already seen two of her sons die: the first was taken prisoner in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and died in a prison camp. A second son was killed in a road accident.

The inability to protect people from kidnappers has helped discredit the Iraqi government. High officials live securely in the Green Zone, protected by the US Army and Western security companies. Often it is their relatives outside the zone who are kidnapped or murdered. Victims' families do not go to the police, because they know they can do nothing, and they suspect that many kidnappers are policemen. In one case, a man who had declined police assistance after his business partner was abducted was called half an hour later by the kidnappers, who said: "You were right to refuse the police offer of help."

The kidnap gangs are linked to the militias, Sunni and Shia. Kidnapping has been rife since soon after the invasion of 2003, but it has recently got worse. A report by the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq says: "Abductions have increased rapidly in the past months and have become a tool for armed groups to finance their activities, to intimidate and eliminate opponents, and to instil fear." Nobody knows the number of victims, but the Baghdad morgue is receiving 200 unidentified bodies a week.

Humanitarian organisations are not spared. The head of the Iraqi Red Crescent administration (IRSC) Dr Anas al-Azzawi was seized on 9 November last year in front of his house by men in blue police uniforms - he was later released. Mass kidnappings have also become common. On 17 December, men in army and police uniforms raided the IRSC headquarters and abducted 42 officials.

Often the identity of those released reveals the sectarian bias of the kidnappers. On 14 November, men dressed as Interior Ministry police stormed the Higher Education Ministry, seizing 150 people. Most of those released were Shia and those held and tortured were Sunni. The lethal blend of sectarian warfare and merciless commercial kidnapping is turning Baghdad into two cities, Sunni and Shia. After this torrent of violence, it may never be possible to put Iraq back together again.