Nineteen-year-old Mehdi was looking forward to meeting the girl who had been calling for days on his cell phone. But he was about to learn that the blind date was a lure by kidnappers, who have turned abductions into a multi-million dollar business in Iraq.
When he arrived for his rendezvous, Mehdi was forced at gunpoint into a car, then held bound and blindfolded for two weeks until his father paid the $60,000 ransom demanded by the kidnappers.
Since Mehdi was snatched around Christmas of 2009, the number of kidnappings for ransom has multiplied, turning into a seemingly flourishing business for both criminal gangs and insurgent groups.
In the lawless aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, abductions became rampant, especially during the exceptionally bloody Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict that peaked between 2005 and 2007.
But those sectarian kidnappings were not usually about money.
“It is a far increasing percentage now where the objective is money, whereas then the objective was murder,” said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.
Foreigners, and truly wealthy and important Iraqis, live behind blast walls and security guards, never stepping out without personal protection.
But Iraqi professionals and small businessmen who cannot afford bodyguards, and whom kidnappers can count on to cough up large sums for ransom, have become the favoured targets of kidnappers.
Between April and June this year, six to seven Iraqis were kidnapped each month, according to UK-based private security firm, AKE. The average ransom paid to kidnappers, it said, was $50,000.
“Kidnap remains a regular occurrence in the country, with many incidents going unreported,” AKE analyst John Drake said.
Iraqi authorities claim that insurgents are behind the kidnappings, demanding ransom to finance terrorist activities. But they also acknowledge that many of the abductions are simply criminal.
“There are gangs who roam government offices, car showrooms or other places to identify targets,” said a police official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Most victims refuse to talk publicly about their ordeals, fearing retribution. But Mehdi and his father agreed to tell their story.
“When I got to the place we had agreed to meet, the girl on the phone kept changing the venue,” recalled Mehdi, now 21, about the day he was taken.
Finally, she told him to go down a side street. There, three 4X4 vehicles with tinted windows suddenly pulled up and forced him in at gunpoint. They put a sack over his head and drove him around, finally stopping and dragging him into a house.
“There, I was blindfolded, my hands were bound with rope and my legs with chains,” he recalled.
For the next two weeks, that is how he remained, even having to manage going to the toilet with his hands tied and with help from one of his abductors.
“It was clear that there was a gang leader,” he said. “The first time he came, they put my legs flat on the floor and he sat on my knees until I could not stand the pain. He kept beating me and asking how much money my father had, and how much he would pay to get me freed.”
Over the next two weeks, the same routine would follow nearly every day.
Using Mehdi’s mobile phone, the kidnappers called his father, telling him his son was all right, and would be fine as long as he was willing to pay.
“‘We want $300,000,’ they told me. ‘If you have it now, we can finish it right now’,” recalled Mehdi’s father, Salah al-Shamsi.
Because kidnappings are so common, Mehdi’s father knew the routine. After calling him once or twice a day, the kidnappers finally agreed to a ransom of $60,000.
Unknown to the kidnappers, and against their orders, Shamsi had contacted a relative who was a police officer. He also had some friends in the US military, and asked them for help.
They tried to track the calls, but soon learned that the kidnappers had covered their tracks.
Every time they called, signal locations kept changing, indicating they were in a moving vehicle at the time. Calls were also typically made in the evening, when Baghdad traffic was not as bad as during the day, meaning they could remain on the move.
Mehdi was kidnapped on December 22, 2009. He was freed on January 5, after his father was told to drop the ransom money at a pre-arranged location and warned, “don’t look back, or you’ll never see your son.”
The kidnappers then freed Mehdi and gave him enough taxi money to get home.
“The ordeal was something you would not wish on anyone,” said Shamsi. “It is the worst thing that can happen to anyone — having your child abducted, then having to bargain for him, and not knowing if you will see him dead or alive.”
Iraqi police arrested four men and two women they said were members of a gang involved in kidnapping, armed robbery and murder, state-run Iraqiya television reported last month, adding their last abduction had been in May.
Earlier in July, a 48-year-old paediatrician was freed from three weeks in captivity after his family handed over a whopping $500,000 to kidnappers in the restive northern province of Kirkuk.
Days earlier, an 81-year-old ophthalmologist was freed in Kirkuk after his family paid an unspecified ransom.
A security official said that the two doctors and an engineer were among seven people kidnapped over a 10-day period in June in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious province, where kidnappings and violence are more common than anywhere else in the country.
“More than 60 kidnappings took place in 2010, while 30 cases were recorded for the first five months of this year in Kirkuk,” said a senior security official in the province.
The exasperated doctors of Kirkuk went on a strike in late June to highlight their plight.
“There are about 630 doctors in Kirkuk. We went on a strike to condemn kidnappings and blackmailing against us,” said Mohsen Abdul Majeed, a senior doctor in the provincial capital, also called Kirkuk.
“It is deplorable that qualified professionals are becoming the targets of terrorists,” he said.