In the last two days, at least ten hostages were freed by their kidnappers, including two Italian women relief workers, their two Iraqi co-workers, as well as four Egyptian and two Iraqi employees of an Egyptian company installing cell phone gear throughout the country. The Italian relief workers, who had been in the country since the early 90s, and opposed the invasion of Iraq, were threatened with death by their captors if Italy did not remove the 3,000 troops it has in Iraq. Italy refused, and their was universal condemnation of the kidnappers for the death threat. After three weeks of this, the kidnappers agreed to release the women for a million dollars in ransom. The Egyptians appear to be a strictly commercial snatch, with ransom demands being made, and apparently met.
Kidnapping has been a major problem in Iraq for decades. Saddam Hussein and his thugs used it as a way to control the population. If someones loyalty was in doubt, they, or a member of their family was arrested, or simply grabbed by one of the many official, and semi-official organizations that kept the population terrified into compliance. Saddam maintained over a dozen different police and intelligence organizations, the better to have them keep an eye on each other. In addition, there were dozens of criminal gangs that were allowed, within limits, to operate as long as they did Saddams dirty work. As with any criminal culture, there was a lot of violence. Saddam was extremely brutal with gangsters who got out of line, and many Iraqis are nostalgic for that particular aspect of the hated Saddam's rule. The current problem comes from the fact that, when Saddams armed forces were defeated in early 2003, his official, and unofficial, gangs remained in business. Without the restraints of Saddam's secret police, the gangs went wild.
These criminal organizations are found all over Iraq. On the borders, and ports, they specialize in smuggling. In the big cities, they do the usual gangster thing (extortion, theft, loan sharking, prostitution and kidnapping.) In some Sunni Arab and Shia Arab areas, the gangs are religious in orientation, doing violence in the name of God and a future Islamic Republic. They are still gangsters. In most of Iraq, the gangs are restrained by tribal militias or local police forces that can match them in firepower and violence. But in some Sunni Arab areas, the gangs rule. The Sunni Arab city of Fallujah is the most extreme example of this, a place without police or strong local tribal authority, which allows al Qaeda (a terrorist gang) to operate freely. But this is expected to stop by the end of the year, as American and Iraqi troops move in and shut down the gangs. The government understands that crushing the gangs, and bringing the crime rate way down, is a major chore. But the country, and economy, cannot prosper if the gangs are not crushed.