Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who's behind the kidnaps?

Could secret paramilitary groups be adding to the violence and lawlessness in Iraq? Firas Al-Atraqchi examines the possibilities

Jill Caroll in the first video released by her captors last month

In the fog of war, secret graves are filled, munitions are moved and unknown operatives remain -- unknown.

In recent weeks, news of and from Iraq has been beset by high-profile kidnappings.

One such kidnapping in late November was of four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) -- a pacifist group -- by a previously unheard of armed group -- the Swords of Truth/Righteousness.

The second high-profile kidnapping was of freelance journalist Jill Carroll on 7 January at the hands of yet another unknown group -- the Brigades of Vengeance.

Since then, two Germans were also kidnapped in Iraq but received less international media coverage.

Last week's kidnappings of two Iraqi journalists, including a 23-year-old woman working for the independent Sumariya channel, received almost no international coverage. No known armed group claimed responsibility.

Let us focus on the two most high profile of the kidnappings.

Iraqi leaders said they had never heard of either of the armed groups purportedly behind the kidnappings: Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) spokesman, Muthanna Harith Al-Dhari, said there was little his group could achieve to win Carroll's release "because the kidnappers are unknown".

In addition to what seems like the rise of two new, yet unheard of groups, other similarities are also puzzling.

First and foremost, the kidnappings occurred in Baghdad.

The CPT members were travelling unarmed and without bodyguards.

Carroll was travelling unarmed and without bodyguards.

CPT members had been lauded by many Iraqi organisations -- mostly Sunni -- because the Christian group had focused on the plight of detainees -- mostly Sunni.

Some Western media outlets picked up on the fact that the CPT was aiding mostly Sunni refugees. "The grotesque irony is that few have worked as assiduously on behalf of Iraqi detainees as Christian Peacemaker Teams, the last Western human rights organisation to operate in Iraq outside the Green Zone. CPT volunteers were among the first to document reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib." (Salon.com)

The Association of Muslim Scholars had said in a statement "CPT and its activists in Iraq had a record of helping the poor and disadvantaged."

Carroll had been lauded by many Iraqis for her documented work highlighting the plight of detainees -- mostly Sunnis -- in Badr-run detention centres. She had won accolades from many senior Sunni leaders:

"This journalist, Jill Carroll ... is one of the great journalists who are against the occupation. She is considered one of the best journalists who stood against the American occupation of Iraq and she focused in her articles on ... telling the world about the Iraqi people's suffering," the AMS said in a statement.

In short, both the four CPT members and Carroll had been recognised by Iraqis -- and specifically Sunnis -- as performing work they viewed as beneficial to the Iraqi people and/or alleviating the plight of Sunnis in Western Iraq (CPT) and in detention centres (Carroll).

It is worthy of mentioning that CPT had been operating in Iraq at least six months before the US invasion of 20 March 2003.

According to their published ethos, CPT members act as "an alternative voice to the reporters 'embedded' with Coalition forces.

They also worked to "expose the injustice and deaths from the US-led economic sanctions". Furthermore, they worked to "launch the Adopt- a-Detainee Campaign asking churches to advocate on behalf of Iraqi detainees".

This is known by all Iraqis across the board since 2002. So who would kidnap them? Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose?

Who would kidnap Ms Carroll? Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose?

Perhaps the answer lies in a deeper understanding of an armed group which few know operates in Iraq.

Ever heard of the Scorpions?

According to a Washington Post report in 2005, the US intelligence community tried to conceal the existence of the group known as the Scorpions which was operating secretly in Iraq.

The report says that the Scorpions were small teams of CIA-sponsored militia (paramilitary) outfits nicknamed Alligator and Cobra who were set up prior to the invasion to commit acts of subterfuge and incite violence against the Baathist regime.

The Scorpions core received millions of dollars in funding -- exact figures remain unknown, training, support, military hardware and materiel.

In the weeks after the war, and particularly after a resistance movement began to gain a foothold throughout Iraq, the Scorpions' role changed to infiltration and support in the interrogation of suspects. They also performed duties as interpreters and translators.

While the use of paramilitary squads may seem normal in an occupied country (many such squads have been used in South America, Vietnam and elsewhere), the existence of this group becomes more ominous when we consider the goals behind funding and arming such a group.

Infiltrate the insurgency. Were they successful? How many Iraqi armed groups are actually comprised of the Scorpions? Is it far-fetched to wonder if the groups who launch attacks and perform executions are actually intelligence plants such as the Scorpions?

And did anyone know that Iraqi interpreters could be comprised of such elements?

According to the Taguba report, which investigated the shameful incidents of abuse and torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib detention facility, "civilian" interpreters were considered suspects.

According to former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the highest-ranking officer to be reprimanded for the Abu Ghraib torture, a drunken interpreter was helped by three interrogators to force an Iraqi girl of 17 to expose herself, after which they kissed her.

We have heard of numerous reports in which interpreters are killed in Iraq. Were any of those targeted and/or killed originally members of the Scorpions? Were any affiliated with groups which kidnap foreigners for political or financial initiative?

It is important to question what appears to be the reality in Iraq. Until a few months ago, the world was kept in the dark about secret jails run by elements of the Iraqi Interior Ministry where Sunni Iraqis had been tortured and executed. Armed conflict between Iraqi resistance groups and Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- first rumoured in 2004 -- are only now being reported in the media.

In the years to come, the Iraqi sands will continue to reveal what the fog of war has hidden.

* The writer is a freelance journalist specialised in Middle East issues

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