Another hostage in Iraq, another step into the darkness

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The kidnapping of the aid worker Margaret Hassan represents another dreadful stage in Iraq's seemingly inexorable descent into the abyss. This latest abduction is especially repulsive since Mrs Hassan has done so much to demonstrate her commitment to the Iraqi people. She has been an aid worker in Iraq for 25 years and passionately denounced the economic sanctions of the 1990s. She even adopted Iraqi citizenship. Nothing Mrs Hassan has done could have associated her with the US-led occupation of Iraq. But still she was taken.

Motives in Iraq are shadowy things. It is, as yet, unclear whether the abduction of Mrs Hassan was a calculated political act or a piece of greedy opportunism by the kidnappers. It is possible that those who captured Mrs Hassan hoped to demand a hefty ransom - a practice not uncommon in Iraq. The fact that she is a Westerner adds a premium to her redemption value, if rumours that other governments have paid vast sums for the release of the citizens are to be believed. According to this scenario, there is good reason to believe that Mrs Hassan will be released, like the two Italian aid workers who were taken hostage recently. Mrs Hassan's gender also affords a glimmer of hope. Most female hostages in Iraq have been spared.

If it turns out that Mrs Hassan was targeted specifically because she is British, the outlook is bleaker. Everyone's worst fear must be that she will be used, like Ken Bigley, to put pressure on the British government and that we will see a repeat of that awful episode. If that is the case, it is to be hoped that as the kidnappers learn more about Mrs Hassan's humanitarian work for Iraq they will show compassion and release her.

Either scenario - negotiating with kidnappers, or relying on their humanity - hardly bears contemplation. Our sympathy must go to Mrs Hassan's family and colleagues. But we must not lose sight of our own Government's responsibility for the chaos in Iraq that has enabled kidnappers - thugs and terrorists alike - to thrive. While desperately hoping for Mrs Hassan's safe release, we must also remember how it came to this.

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