When Simona Torretta returned to Baghdad in March 2003, in the midst of the “shock and awe” aerial bombardment, her Iraqi friends greeted her by telling her she was nuts. “They were just so surprised to see me. They said, ‘Why are you coming here? Go back to Italy. Are you crazy?’”
But Torretta didn’t go back. She stayed throughout the invasion, continuing the humanitarian work she began in 1996, when she first visited Iraq with her anti-sanctions NGO, A Bridge to Baghdad. When Baghdad fell, Torretta again opted to stay, this time to bring medicine and water to Iraqis suffering under occupation. Even after resistance fighters began targeting foreigners, and most foreign journalists and aid workers fled, Torretta again returned. “I cannot stay in Italy,” the 29-year-old told a documentary film-maker.
Today, Torretta’s life is in danger, along with the lives of her fellow Italian aid worker Simona Pari, and their Iraqi colleagues Raad Ali Abdul Azziz and Mahnouz Bassam. Eight days ago, the four were snatched at gunpoint from their home/office in Baghdad and have not been heard from since. In the absence of direct communication from their abductors, political controversy swirls round the incident. Proponents of the war are using it to paint peaceniks as naive, blithely supporting a resistance that answers international solidarity with kidnappings and beheadings. Meanwhile, a growing number of Islamic leaders are hinting that the raid on A Bridge to Baghdad was not the work of mujahideen, but of foreign intelligence agencies out to discredit the resistance.
Nothing about this kidnapping fits the pattern of other abductions. Most are opportunistic attacks on treacherous stretches of road. Torretta and her colleagues were coldly hunted down in their home. And while mujahideen in Iraq scrupulously hide their identities, making sure to wrap their faces in scarves, these kidnappers were bare-faced and clean-shaven, some in business suits. One assailant was addressed by the others as “sir”.
Kidnap victims have overwhelmingly been men, yet three of these four are women. Witnesses say the gunmen questioned staff in the building until the Simonas were identified by name, and that Mahnouz Bassam, an Iraqi woman, was dragged screaming by her headscarf, a shocking religious transgression for an attack supposedly carried out in the name of Islam.
Most extraordinary was the size of the operation: rather than the usual three or four fighters, 20 armed men pulled up to the house in broad daylight, seemingly unconcerned about being caught. Only blocks from the heavily patrolled Green Zone, the whole operation went off with no interference from Iraqi police or US military – although Newsweek reported that “about 15 minutes afterwards, an American Humvee convoy passed hardly a block away”.
And then there were the weapons. The attackers were armed with AK-47s, shotguns, pistols with silencers and stun guns – hardly the mujahideen’s standard-issue rusty Kalashnikovs. Strangest of all is this detail: witnesses said that several attackers wore Iraqi National Guard uniforms and identified themselves as working for Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister.
An Iraqi government spokesperson denied that Allawi’s office was involved. But Sabah Kadhim, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, conceded that the kidnappers “were wearing military uniforms and flak jackets”. So was this a kidnapping by the resistance or a covert police operation? Or was it something worse: a revival of Saddam’s mukhabarat disappearances, when agents would arrest enemies of the regime, never to be heard from again? Who could have pulled off such a coordinated operation – and who stands to benefit from an attack on this anti-war NGO?
On Monday, the Italian press began reporting on one possible answer. Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, from Iraq’s leading Sunni cleric organisation, told reporters in Baghdad that he received a visit from Torretta and Pari the day before the kidnap. “They were scared,” the cleric said. “They told me that someone threatened them.” Asked who was behind the threats, al-Kubaisi replied: “We suspect some foreign intelligence.”
Blaming unpopular resistance attacks on CIA or Mossad conspiracies is idle chatter in Baghdad, but coming from Kubaisi, the claim carries unusual weight; he has ties with a range of resistance groups and has brokered the release of several hostages. Kubaisi’s allegations have been widely reported in Arab media, as well as in Italy, but have been absent from the English-language press.
Western journalists are loath to talk about spies for fear of being labelled conspiracy theorists. But spies and covert operations are not a conspiracy in Iraq; they are a daily reality. According to CIA deputy director James L Pavitt, “Baghdad is home to the largest CIA station since the Vietnam war”, with 500 to 600 agents on the ground. Allawi himself is a lifelong spook who has worked with MI6, the CIA and the mukhabarat, specialising in removing enemies of the regime.
A Bridge to Baghdad has been unapologetic in its opposition to the occupation regime. During the siege of Falluja in April, it coordinated risky humanitarian missions. US forces had sealed the road to Falluja and banished the press as they prepared to punish the entire city for the gruesome killings of four Blackwater mercenaries. In August, when US marines laid siege to Najaf, A Bridge to Baghdad again went where the occupation forces wanted no witnesses. And the day before their kidnapping, Torretta and Pari told Kubaisi that they were planning yet another high-risk mission to Falluja.
In the eight days since their abduction, pleas for their release have crossed all geographical, religious and cultural lines. The Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, the International Association of Islamic Scholars and several Iraqi resistance groups have all voiced outrage. A resistance group in Falluja said the kidnap suggests “collaboration with foreign forces.” Yet some voices are conspicuous by their absence: the White House and the office of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Neither has said a word.
What we do know is this: if this hostage-taking ends in bloodshed, Washington, Rome and their Iraqi surrogates will be quick to use the tragedy to justify the brutal occupation – an occupation that Simona Torretta, Simona Pari, Raad Ali Abdul Azziz and Mahnouz Bassam risked their lives to oppose. And we will be left wondering whether that was the plan all along.
Jeremy Scahill is a reporter for the independent US radio/TV show Democracy Now ; Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows