BAGHDAD -- Widespread lawlessness is providing incentive for kidnappers, who have largely turned their attention to their fellow Iraqis since a wave of high-profile abductions forced foreign journalists and contractors to step up security measures last year.
"One of the most ignored dimensions of the Iraqi insurgency are the Iraqis themselves who are regularly abducted, held for ransom and sometimes executed," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism specialist at the Rand Corp., an American nonprofit research group.
The kidnapping crisis is so severe that it is difficult to speak with any Iraqi in Baghdad who does not know a family that has been victimized.
Iraq's Ministry of Interior formally registered about 130 abduction cases between July 2004 and April 2005, according to the United Nations, but the figure is absurdly low.
Unnamed ministry officials told the Wall Street Journal last year that 20 to 30 persons were being snatched every day, most of them in Baghdad.
"Sometimes the people are too afraid to report the case," explained Waseem Abdulkazim Kareem, who handles kidnapping investigations for the Interior Ministry.
"They fear the victim will be killed if they inform the police, and then the kidnappers will come after other family members."
Iraqi authorities say the motives for kidnappings vary. Abductions resulting in death are often politically motivated, or stoked by sectarian tensions, while most capture-and-release cases involve organized criminal gangs seeking money.
"These kidnappings represent a significant gap in the country's security and undermine public confidence in the ability of both Iraqi government and coalition forces to maintain order," said Mr. Hoffman, the counterterrorism specialist, by e-mail from his Arlington office.
With security forces tied down battling insurgents, criminals have found little to stop them from kidnapping ordinary citizens for profit.
Capt. Abbas Naen Handen, 34, who heads kidnapping investigations at the Almsebah police station in Baghdad, said he has only two officers to assist him, while most kidnapping gangs work in groups of four to six.
"We have violent crimes to deal with every day," Capt. Handen said. "Most of these kidnappers are just looking for money to buy alcohol and women."
Shaka Sala was shot twice in the head by kidnappers who seized him on his way from work at the Ministry of Culture in July. They may have killed him for cooperating with the new government.
But his elder brother Moqder Sala, who sold his car and gave up his life savings in a futile ransom bid, is still unable to explain the loss to himself, or to his brother's wife and 13-year-old son.
"He was just a clerk," Mr. Sala said. "He was not a rich man. He did not have problems with anyone."
At least Mr. Sala knows what happened to his brother. Saed Abod Hussein, 32, has not seen her husband, Qeas Abed, since he left for his job at a cigarette distributor three months ago, despite the payment of a $15,000 ransom in August.
"I don't know if we're dealing with insurgents or criminals," she said through an interpreter. "I have to live in my father's house and wait to know my husband's fate."
The kidnappers often find the easiest prey are children such as Nasir Deen. He was 9 years old when rendered unconscious with a gasoline-soaked cloth and taken from his Baghdad neighborhood last year.
"I kept crying for my mother," Nasir, who was held for eight days, said through an interpreter. "The men beat me and told me to be quiet."
Nasir's parents sold their wedding rings and canvassed their neighbors for cash, raising $9,300 to win his release. But his mother, Nada Abbas, said the boy remains deeply traumatized.
"He jumps whenever someone comes to the door, or there is a loud noise outside," she said. "I want him to be able to go outside and run around freely with other children."