Published October 20, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq – CARE International (search) suspended operations in Iraq on Wednesday after gunmen seized the woman who ran the humanitarian organization's work in the country. The victim's Iraqi husband appealed to the kidnappers to free her "in the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood."
Margaret Hassan (search), who holds British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was seized early Tuesday on her way to work in western Baghdad after gunmen blocked her route and dragged the driver and a companion from the car, her husband said.
Hassan, who is in her early 60s, is among the most widely known humanitarian officials in the Middle East and is also the most high-profile figure to fall victim to a wave of kidnappings sweeping Iraq in recent months.
The Arab television station Al-Jazeera broadcast a brief video showing Hassan, wearing a white blouse and appearing tense, sitting in a room with bare white walls. An editor at the station, based in Qatar, said the tape contained no audio. It did not identify what group was holding her and contained no demand for her release.
Iraqi officials refused comment on the case, citing the need for security to protect her life.
"I would like to tell the kidnappers that we are in the holy month of Ramadan (search) and my wife has been helping Iraq since thirty years and loved this country," her husband Tahseen Ali Hassan said Wednesday on Al-Arabiya television. "In the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood, I appeal to the kidnapers to free her because she has nothing to do with politics."
The husband told Al-Jazeera that said his wife had not received threats and that the kidnappers had not contacted anyone with any demands as of Tuesday night.
Hassan has lived in Baghdad for 30 years, helping supply medicines and other humanitarian aid and speaking out about Iraqis' suffering under international sanctions during the 1990s.
Early Wednesday, CARE Australia, which coordinates the international agency's Iraq operations, announced it had suspended operations because of the abduction, but it said staff would not be evacuated. It was unclear how many non-Iraqis work for CARE here.
Many non-governmental organizations began withdrawing international staffers after attacks on foreigners and their institutions began in earnest in the summer of 2003.
"Our staff are not operating currently there, they're certainly not working there now in light of the current situation," Robert Glasser, CARE Australia's chief executive officer, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
In other developments, an Army reservist indicted for abusing Iraqi prisoners, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick, 38, was expected to plead guilty Wednesday to four charges under a deal in which the prosecution drops eight other accusations against him.
A suicide bomber detonated his car Wednesday near a U.S. patrol on the airport road, injuring two American soldiers and two Iraqi police, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. The road is among the most dangerous in Baghdad.
Kidnappings have added new pressure on U.S. and Iraqi forces already struggling to combat a virulent Sunni Muslim insurgency in central and northern areas of the country. U.S. officials are trying to train and equip Iraqis to assume a greater security role.
However, the American general in charge of protecting Baghdad told reporters Tuesday that the city is still far short of the numbers of Iraqi policemen needed to secure the city and the force won't be up to strength in time for national elections in January.
Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said Baghdad needs 25,000 police. Now the city counts 15,000 police — most of whom have had just eight weeks of training.
"We're about 10,000 short of what we need," Chiarelli said in a lunch briefing with reporters. He said Baghdad's required contingent of 25,000 police should be on the streets by spring or summer 2005.
Militants have kidnapped at least seven other women over the past six months, but all were later released. Last month, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices. They were released after three weeks in captivity.
By contrast, at least 30 male hostages have been killed, including three Americans beheaded by their captors. Hassan's abduction occurred less than two weeks after a video posted on an Islamic Web site showed the beheading of British hostage Kenneth Bigley.
CARE said Hassan was born in Britain, but the British and Irish foreign offices said she was born in Ireland, which is not part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. When the kidnappers sent the tape to Al-Jazeera, they said they had abducted a "British aid worker," according to the station.
The British government is weighing a U.S. request to shift some of the country's 9,000 soldiers from relatively peaceful southern Iraq to areas south of Baghdad — presumably to free U.S. troops for an all-out assault on the insurgent bastion Fallujah.
British lawmakers are worried about sending their soldiers to the more volatile U.S.-controlled sector at a time when public opposition to the war in Britain has reduced Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity.
Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said it was up to each non-governmental organization whether to keep staff in Iraq.
"The kidnapping of the Italian and Iraqi women only a while ago should have alerted others even more as to the dangers of operating in Iraq," van Genderen Stort said.