- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

BAGHDAD — Kidnappings by Muslim militants have driven non-Iraqis and those working with them into hiding to a degree not experienced since the nationwide uprising in April kept most foreigners locked inside their compounds.

The last illusions of security disappeared when, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, two female Italian aid workers were grabbed from their residence by masked gunmen this week. Days earlier, self-proclaimed Islamic warriors kidnapped two journalists from France, a nation that opposed the U.S.-led war.

Most Iraqis continue to welcome non-Iraqis, showering them with tea, sweets and passionate invitations to lunch or dinner.

But in calculating odds, security experts are speaking as if one out of every 100 Iraqis would be willing to sell foreigners out to the resistance and daily life has become a series of strategies to keep one from being identified as a foreigner.

Moreover, kidnapping gangs that have preyed on Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion, have also turned their attention to foreigners, using the rhetoric of the Islamists while settling for cash payments to set their captives free.

On the road in from Turkey, Amman and Kuwait, contractors dress up in street clothes and drive commercial trucks as they haul military equipment.

Even brawny security guards use Russian-made weapons and wrap themselves in Arab head scarves.

Journalists grow facial hair and wear cheap plastic sandals bought at the bazaar. They constantly looking over their shoulders while conducting street interviews and wondering whether the next checkpoint along the road will be manned by friendly Iraqi police or malicious kidnappers posing as authorities.

Some news organizations and companies send their local Iraqi staff out in the field to conduct interviews and take notes, keeping their Western staff under virtual house arrest inside well-guarded compounds.

Drivers who work for foreigners rotate cars and travel patterns to throw off any observers. “Don’t get into habits,” said Patrick Lowry, co-director of the Baghdad-based Iraq Business and Logistics Center, which helps foreign companies set up shop in Iraq. “Don’t leave the hotel every day at 8 a.m. and [don’t] take the same road.”

Foreigners here — whether working for aid groups or news organizations have long ago abandoned sport utility vehicles in favor of low-key, beat up sedans or even cars dressed up like taxis.

“I drive a normal slightly run-down Iraqi car, no guards, nothing elaborate,” said Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images, who comes in and out of the country frequently. “Usually on the highway outside of Baghdad I have a checkered handkerchief and I put around my neck or over my head a little bit in the Arab style.”

Western women working here have realized that even wearing a head scarf isn’t enough; one has to wear it like an Iraqi — with every strand of hair hidden.

Miss Torretta and Miss Pari worked quietly on small relief projects for the nonprofit Bridges to Baghdad, a group that opposed 1990s U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq as well as the latest war and ensuing occupation.

A spokesman for the organization, Lello Rienzi, told reporters in Rome that the women believed they were working in complete security, protected by their support for the anti-occupation cause.

“They are not instruments of the occupying forces,” said a letter signed by peace groups demanding the two women’s release.

That assurance, apparently, didn’t carry much weight with the kidnappers, who vowed to punish the women for Italy’s 3,000-troop contribution to the U.S.-led multinational force.

“We promise you, [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi, to burn your heart, and the heart of the crusader criminal Italian people, with these two Italian women, as a punishment to you for stealing the land of Muslims and killing Muslim people,” said a letter posted on a Islamist militant Web site.

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