Kidnap in Iraq is now big business. Which may offer Margaret Hassan her best hope

They may use Zarqawi's video techniques, but the gang holding the aid worker may be motivated by money, reports Justin Huggler
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The Independent Online

The fate of the kidnapped Iraqi humanitarian worker Margaret Hassan may depend on which group's hands she has fallen into. A staggering number of kidnappings take place in Iraq, the vast majority of them for money. Most of the victims are Iraqis, whose names never make it into the newspapers. They are held for ransom, and generally they are released if the ransom is paid.

The fate of the kidnapped Iraqi humanitarian worker Margaret Hassan may depend on which group's hands she has fallen into. A staggering number of kidnappings take place in Iraq, the vast majority of them for money. Most of the victims are Iraqis, whose names never make it into the newspapers. They are held for ransom, and generally they are released if the ransom is paid.

In the midst of all this operate a few groups of militants, the most prominent of them led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who capture their victims not to be held for ransom, but to kill them brutally in front of a camera for propaganda. The cruel video in which Mrs Hassan is shown pleading for her life does not augur well.

But members of a criminal gang captured by Iraqi security forces admitted they were planning to film videos of their hostages, based on those of Zarqawi's group, to gain extra publicity and to highlight the danger to the hostage's life, purely in order to increase the ransom money.

It does not just come down to who picks you up outside your villa in Baghdad, or from the back of a car on the lawless roads south of the capital. There is believed to be a market for hostages, in which groups such as Zarqawi's offer cash to the hostage-takers in exchange for Western captives. To the kidnappers, it's all the same whether they get their reward from your relatives for freeing you or from Zarqawi for handing you over.

Intelligence experts believe that the US has deliberately overplayed the significance of the psychopath Zarqawi in the overall insurgency in Iraq, because it used him as dubious evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But if he is a smaller player than claimed, he does appear to be central to the beheading of hostages.

The first beheading, of the American Nicholas Berg, took place in May. On the video, which was shown on the internet, a caption claimed it was Zarqawi who murdered Berg. Kidnapping for profit was already rife in Iraq, and wealthy Iraqis were fleeing the country. What Zarqawi saw was the opportunity to turn it into something else.

The repulsive videos of hostages being beheaded were not invented in Iraq. The Chechens used to make similar videos of captured Russian soldiers being beheaded. One Chechen video was widely distributed in Sunni areas of Iraq as long ago as August last year. The kidnappers of the American journalist Daniel Pearl made a similar video of his beheading in Pakistan in 2002.

The videos are the insurgent version of "shock and awe". Their aim is to terrorise the West. There has been speculation as to why Zarqawi's group kept Kenneth Bigley alive for so long before murdering him. It is possible that Zarqawi's group was genuinely making inquiries into Bigley's background. But equally it is possible that Zarqawi was playing Fleet Street like an expert spin-doctor.

Iraq's US-appointed interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, is not the only one to have warned that the media are playing into the kidnappers' hands by giving so much attention to the hostage-takings and beheadings. Some observers fear that Zarqawi may have kept Mr Bigley alive for so long because he knew Fleet Street would give him the emotional response the US media had denied him.

But limiting publicity for the hostage-takers is a difficult matter. The laudable decision of most television networks not to show the beheading videos has been defeated by the internet. People just watch them on websites instead. In the week that the Nicholas Berg video was released, it was the most popular search item on the internet. And it is not only supporters of the militants who watch.

You can find hundreds of young Americans who watched that video, and the others that followed, on internet discussion boards, and they are seething with rage.

Now Margaret Hassan's husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, says that Tony Blair has put his wife's life in grave danger by proclaiming to the media that his government is trying to secure her release, effectively turning Mrs Hassan, who has Iraqi citizenship, has lived in Iraq for 30 years and considers herself Iraqi, into a British cause.

Late on Friday, Care International, the charity Mrs Hassan works for, responded with a video appeal on al-Jazeera television stressing her Iraqi nationality, credentials, and decades of work in the country. Just to report this ever-increasing amount of footage makes for a feeling of unease. Does it help, or merely serve her captors?

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