CARE's national director for Iraq abducted in Baghdad

Humanitarian worker had stayed in adopted nation during invasion

October 20, 2004|By Monte Morin | Monte Morin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunmen kidnapped the head of the CARE humanitarian group in Iraq, a British-born woman in her 60s who has been critical of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has worked for three decades to improve living conditions here.

The kidnapping of Margaret Hassan yesterday triggered appeals for her release from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Muslim humanitarian groups.

Hassan's abduction occurred on a day when militants fired mortar rounds at an Iraqi National Guard base north of the capital, killing five soldiers and wounding 80. An American contractor working for a Halliburton unit died in a mortar attack on a U.S. base in Baghdad, news agencies reported.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they expected violence to escalate during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that began last week.

Yesterday, Blair decried the kidnapping of Hassan after he met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"This is someone who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, someone who is immensely respected, someone who is doing their level best to help the country. I think it shows you the type of people we are up against," Blair told reporters. "We don't know which group it is, so there's really a limit at this stage to what I can say to you. We will do whatever we can, obviously."

Blair's government is weighing a U.S. request to redeploy some of the 9,000 British soldiers serving in Iraq from the relatively peaceful southern region to dangerous areas near Baghdad - presumably to free U.S. troops for an assault on Fallujah and other insurgent strongholds in the Sunni Triangle.

Some British parliamentarians oppose to sending the soldiers to the more volatile U.S.-controlled sector while British public opposition to the war has reduced Blair's popularity.

Hassan was abducted about 7:30 a.m. as she headed to her office. Hours later, the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a video of Hassan in a white blouse and sitting on a couch. Although she appeared to be speaking, the tape contained no audio. Al-Jazeera reported that an "armed Iraqi group" claimed responsibility for the abduction, but it was not identified.

No demands have been made, and CARE officials said they had not been contacted by Hassan's abductors.

"As of now, we are unaware of the motives," CARE said in a statement released to the Associated Press. "As far as we know, Margaret is unharmed."

By most accounts, Hassan, who holds British and Iraqi citizenship, was an unlikely target. She is married to an Iraqi and chose to stay in Iraq in March 2003 - when U.S. and British warplanes bombed the country - to carry out humanitarian aid and as an act of solidarity with her adopted country.

Hassan was a vocal critic of international sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, arguing that average Iraqis were suffering greatly under them. CARE officials say she had been working to rebuild water and sanitation systems and hospitals and clinics.

Officials of Islamic Relief, a charity based in Birmingham, England, recalled that Hassan had spoken to them in 2002 about Iraqis' suffering during a decade of economic sanctions.

"We call for whoever is holding her hostage to think of her family and the good work she is doing in Iraq," Islamic relief spokesman Ideel Jafferi told the British Broadcasting Corporation. "It's Ramadan, it's a time of peace and goodwill, and in this particularly holy month they must think of the family of Margaret and the people she is trying to help."

Iraqi officials said the attack on the Iraqi National Guard brigade headquarters in Mashahidah, 25 miles north of Baghdad, was apparently timed to coincide with a regular 9:30 a.m. formation. About 300 guardsmen were awaiting their paychecks when six mortar rounds hit the compound. At least six U.S. helicopters were dispatched to carry the injured to a nearby military hospital, officials said.

Iraqi guardsmen said the attack was the third on their base; nobody was killed in the first two attacks.

"We received threats before," said Hussan Mahoof Timum, a guardsman. "The security situation is terrible here. We always feel as if we're being watched all the time."

The dead and injured were recruits who joined the ING two months ago, he said.

The abduction of Hassan brought to mind the high-profile seizure Sept. 7 of two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. The women were freed Sept. 28 amid reports that the Italian government was involved in paying at least $1 million in ransom.

The three weeks of captivity suffered by British engineer Kenneth Bigley before his beheading tormented not only the man's family, but also many of his fellow citizens. The beheadings of three American civilians working in Iraq - Nicholas Berg, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley - brought home to the United States how barbaric the Iraqi insurgency is.

This week, two Macedonians seized in August were reported slain by a militant group called the Islamic Army in Iraq. The men were construction workers on their way to a job site. Their killers accused them of being American spies.

Generally, authorities say, Islamic militant groups do not abduct the victims. They just end up with them. Criminal gangs often seize foreigners for ransom or to sell the captive to another group that or wants the victim for political reasons.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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