Tuesday, October 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — Gunmen seized the director of CARE International — a woman who has worked on behalf of Iraqis for three decades — as the British government yesterday weighed a politically volatile American request to transfer soldiers to dangerous areas near Baghdad.

Elsewhere yesterday, a mortar attack killed at least four Iraqi national guardsmen and wounded 80 at a base north of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military. Iraqi officials on the scene said five guardsmen were killed and more than 100 injured. An American contractor also died when mortar shells crashed onto a U.S. base in the Iraqi capital. And three car bombs exploded in the northern city of Mosul, killing two Iraqi civilians and wounding three.

Margaret Hassan, who holds British, Irish and Iraqi citizenships and is in her early 60s, was kidnapped about 7:30 a.m. while being driven from her home to CARE’s office in a western neighborhood of the capital, according to a CARE employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The employee said the group did not employ armed guards.

Arab television station Al Jazeera broadcast a brief video showing Mrs. Hassan, wearing a white blouse and appearing tense, sitting in a room with bare white walls. An editor at the station, based in Qatar, said the tape contained no audio. It did not identify what group was holding her and contained no demand for her release.

In Sydney, CARE Australia announced it had suspended its operations in Iraq following the kidnapping.

Robert Glasser, CARE Australia’s chief executive officer, said none of the organization’s staff was working after Mrs. Hassan was kidnapped yesterday morning.

CARE Australia is coordinating the international agency’s operations in Iraq and had employed Mrs. Hassan as its director in the war-torn country.

Mrs. Hassan, who was born in Dublin, according to the British and Irish foreign offices, is married to an Iraqi and has lived here for 30 years, helping supply medicine and other humanitarian aid and speaking out about Iraqis’ suffering under international sanctions during the 1990s.

She went to work for CARE International soon after it began operations in Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf war, with programs focusing on rebuilding and maintaining water and sanitation systems, hospitals and clinics.

She thought of herself as an Iraqi and was one of the most experienced and highest profile aid workers in the country.

Shortly before the war last year, she visited Britain, where she warned Parliament that Iraq could face a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a conflict.

At the time, she said that U.N. sanctions had left the Iraqi people in a worse situation than they had been at the end of the first Gulf war in 1991.

As U.S.-led forces massed for the invasion, Mrs. Hassan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she would not leave “because I think it’s important for my staff that I stay with them. The strength comes from us supporting one another.”

A CARE spokeswoman in London described her as a private person, so much so that the organization knew little about her personal life. Her age was not available, and the organization did not even know where she had gone to school.

Her kidnapping was the latest attack against humanitarian organizations, many of which have curtailed operations and withdrawn international staff because of the violence in Iraq. It also follows a wave of abductions targeting foreigners in the heart of the capital. Insurgents in Iraq have kidnapped more than 150 foreigners in their campaign to drive out coalition forces.

Although militants have kidnapped seven other women in the past six months, all were later released. By contrast, at least 30 male hostages have been killed, including three Americans beheaded by their captors. Mrs. Hassan’s abduction occurred less than two weeks after a video posted on an Islamic Web site showed the beheading of British hostage Kenneth Bigley.

The British government is weighing a U.S. request to shift some of the country’s 9,000 soldiers from the relatively peaceful southern Iraq to areas south of Baghdad — presumably to free U.S. troops for an all-out assault on the insurgent bastion Fallujah.

British lawmakers are worried about sending their soldiers to the more volatile U.S.-controlled sector at a time when public opposition to the war in Britain has reduced Prime Minister Tony Blair’s popularity.

The mortar attack on the Iraqi national guard occurred early yesterday when six mortar shells crashed onto a base in Mushahidah, 25 miles north of Baghdad. The troops were lined up in a courtyard for morning formation, according to Iraqi and multinational officials.

American helicopters helped ferry the wounded to U.S. hospitals in the area. Iraqi police and security units have been a frequent target of rebels trying to undermine U.S.-led security efforts ahead of January national elections.

An American contractor working for KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root, was killed and a U.S. soldier was wounded during a pre-dawn mortar and rocket barrage yesterday at a garrison in Baghdad, officials said.

The three car bombs in Mosul, which killed two Iraqi civilians and wounded three, occurred between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., the military said. One bomb targeted a provincial convoy belonging to the governor of Nineveh province, though he was not in the convoy. Another hit a military coalition convoy, causing minor injuries to one U.S. soldier.

The wave of violence that has swept Iraq has convinced many humanitarian organizations — even those that have hung on through conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Balkans — that it is time to leave.

Last month, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices. They were released after three weeks in captivity.

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