- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

LONDON — An American photojournalist who was kidnapped during a photo shoot in Baghdad Sunday has been driven into the center of Baghdad and set free — after what appears to have been unprecedented cooperation between Sunni clerics and hard-line Shi’ite fighters loyal to the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both are rivals and oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq.

The kidnapping was first reported in The Washington Times.

“We find it encouraging that the level of tolerance for kidnapping among anti-Western groups in Iraq seems to be declining,” said a security source, who declined to be identified.

A spate of recent beheadings had left security officials in Baghdad worried that an American captive might face a similar grisly fate.

In his five months in Iraq, Paul Taggart, 24, had performed a number of dangerous assignments for World Picture News, including extensive photo shoots in the battle-scarred holy Shi’ite city Najaf.

He was starting a 10-day assignment to photograph fighters in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum area comprising 2.2. million people. In recent months, many parts of it have fallen to Mahdi’s Army, under the control of the young Sheik al-Sadr.

“I was well treated and well fed,” Mr. Taggart told his parents last night, the relieved couple said.

In one of the main squares of the volatile district Sunday, a gang of three masked men forced Mr. Taggart out of his car at gunpoint.

Although Mr. Taggart’s driver-translator had brought him to his own local area of Sadr City, he was unable to prevent the kidnapping. The attackers let the driver go, and he reported the seizure to the authorities.

According to Sadr City residents, the captors, who were Shi’ites, later approached Baghdad’s Sunni Muslim Islamic Council, offering to “sell” Mr. Taggart to any Sunni extremist group — presumably also including the group under the notorious Jordanian insurgent leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose men have so far beheaded 10 captives, including two Americans and a Briton.

Though strongly anti-American, the council members immediately contacted members of Mahdi’s Army. Spokesmen for the group had vehemently denied any involvement in the kidnapping.

Mahdi’s Army, according to its own insiders’ account, sent armed men to rendezvous with the kidnap gang, which was overpowered. Five men were then placed in their custody, and Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters started negotiations to hand over Mr. Taggart to U.S. forces.

That sort of development would have seemed unthinkable a few months ago.

However, Sheik al-Sadr’s group is now trying to improve relations with the U.S. forces which they had been battling, and it is aiming to participate in next January’s election process.

A turnover of arms in Sadr City began Monday, in which Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters are getting paid to turn in rocket-propelled grenade launchers, semi-automatic weapons and rocket-launchers.

However, Sheik al-Sadr told his fighters last week that the turnover is “voluntary.”

It is apparently the second time he has been instrumental in releasing a kidnapped journalist.

James Brandon, a young reporter for a British newspaper, was severely beaten and subjected to a mock execution in the southern British-controlled city of Basra in August, but was released after an order or appeal from the renegade cleric. Shi’ite gangs of kidnappers, usually seeking financial reward, are not known to have killed any non-Iraqi hostages; Sunni extremists are blamed for all foreign hostage deaths so far.

Probably coincidentally, Mr. Taggart had been staying at the same hotel as one of the two French journalists who were also kidnapped in August. Both men are still missing.

The hotel lies within a cluster around the Hamra hotel frequented mainly by journalists, along with some foreign businessmen and a dwindling band of humanitarian aid workers.

That group of hotels has its own barriers to block streets: sandbags, concrete defensive walls and a security system run by uniformed Iraqi guards.

Journalists generally avoid using sport utility vehicles that have made contractors the targets of shooting or kidnap attempts, and generally use normal Baghdad taxis or regular saloon cars. Very few, apart from some television crews and major international newswire agencies, have armed protection.

Mr. Taggart was briefly taken to the offices of a U.S. news organization, where he spoke to his parents by phone, before being driven to the U.S. Embassy inside the heavily fortified green zone of central Baghdad.

After recuperation and a debriefing, he is expected to fly back to the U.S. rather than carry on his assignment.

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