| Moqtada al-Sadr One-and-a-half-year-old Qusay, who was shot in the arm during clashes in Falluja, being treated in Baghdad’s al-Nouman hospital. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 13 (Reuters): The wave of kidnappings sweeping Iraq snared people from more countries, forcing foreigners to rethink their security, hire more men with guns to protect them, avoid unnecessary travel and keep as low a profile as possible.
An Islamist group abducted four Italians and demanded Italy pull its troops out of Iraq, after other kidnappers freed five Ukrainians and three Russians in the latest spin of the hostage carousel.
Late tonight, French television news agency Capa said one of its reporters had been kidnapped by an unknown group near Baghdad on Sunday.
The kidnappings have lent a new dimension to the Iraq conflict, affecting a dozen countries, some of which, like Russia, opposed the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Television pictures showed four men described as Italian hostages seated on the ground holding their passports. Heavily armed men stood around them.
Italy’s foreign ministry confirmed four Italians were missing and said they worked for a security company.
The kidnappings and simultaneous uprisings by Sunni and Shia insurgents have dramatically raised the risks and costs of foreigners — journalists, aid workers and businesses with reconstruction contracts — operating in the country.
Some are starting to pull out altogether. France has urged its citizens to leave. Russia’s main overseas engineering company, Tekhpromexport, pulled out its 370 staff helping to rebuild a power plant. Moscow said it was ready to help the roughly 500 Russians in Iraq leave the country. Those who stay have had to review security arrangements.
Many foreigners have abandoned guarded houses in Baghdad and moved to hotels protected by US troops.
Others have hired armed guards to protect their villas. Some are banned from travelling without an armed escort.
Tom ’Neill, a field adviser with AKE, a British firm that provides security staff and advice for firms and journalists operating in Iraq, said concern over kidnapping “went up a hundred-fold”. “You’ve got to limit your movements. If you want to move, you have to be 100 per cent sure that task needs to be undertaken,” he said. The company’s staff in the field closely monitor which roads are safe and when.
He said some clients were being urged to avoid the telltale four-wheel-drive trucks that often give away their presence. “You certainly don’t want to be seen as white faces looking out of a vehicle, any particular vehicle. You’ve got to downscale,” he said. Others were being advised to switch to armoured cars.
Costs are spiralling. The price of insurance for high-risk workers in Iraq has nearly doubled since just last week, said Claire Heneghan of London-based insurance broker Heath Lambert. For example, it can now cost $16,000 a year to insure a worker to the tune of $200,000.
Security and insurance can now account for half the overall cost of doing business in Iraq, said Martin Stone, political and terrorism risk analyst at Aon, the world’s second-largest insurance broker. “It is also likely that 50 per cent is a minimum; some are paying a lot more,” he said.
David Claridge, director of consultancy Janusian Security Risk Management which supplies guards for clients in Iraq, said the worsening risk was more of a problem for smaller companies or those operating on their own than for large firms with major contracts and big security operations.