Features
Mindy Belz

Pay money

Iraq | Extortion remains one of the rules of the road in still dangerous provinces

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

MOSUL, Iraq-Odisho Yousif's job every two weeks or so was to take money raised on behalf of church families, people victimized by violence, kidnapping, or persecution mostly in Baghdad, and deliver it to them or their church. Almost since the war began, Iraqis living in the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora, as well as Iraqis with secure livelihoods in the north, became a kind of life support system. When a family lost its grocery store due to a bombing, or a relative had to raise ransom after a kidnapping, the support system kicked in. Yousif, 61, a lay leader in the Assyrian Church of the East and an active member in the central committee of Iraq's minority Assyrian Patriotic Party (APP), developed a networking talent for raising money and finding need during the worst years of terrorist fighting-when Iraqi deaths easily averaged 500-1,000 a month. That is, until he himself became the victim.

En route to Baghdad on July 2, 2006, with $4,000 to deliver, his car broke down. The driver, a distant relative and a Christian also, went for help. But he didn't get far before a black Opal drove up and stopped. Four men stepped out wearing masks. They ordered Yousif and later the driver face down into the car. When Yousif hesitated, one of the men shot him in the leg, grazing the skin. He tumbled into the car, frightened. "The first thing I knew I had to figure out was where we were going."

As the Opal headed into the desert, Yousif calculated that it was headed toward Baquba, a town 40 miles north of Baghdad and riddled with violence. That same day a series of bombs exploded there. Iraqi authorities buried al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in "a secret but marked grave," officials said, after U.S. forces killed him in a raid just five miles outside Baquba. The area seethed with high crimes: On the day that Yousif was captured, terrorists killed an Iraqi army colonel and kidnapped several prominent Sunni politicians. In Baghdad approximately 10 bombs went off with lethal force. Overall Iraqi civilian casualties in July 2006 would eventually stand at nearly 1,100, only to be surpassed by August, when nearly 3,000 Iraqi civilians died at the hands of terrorists. (In contrast, U.S. military casualties for the month reached 43; in August they rose to 65.)

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Aware of the growing number of threats against Christians, Yousif nonetheless was shocked by his capture, he said, and fearful of what might happen next. He was the most prominent member of his party ever to be kidnapped. Soon he would also be its most expensive.

By nightfall the group arrived at what looked like a deserted military depot with old equipment and some shelter. In the distance Yousif could see Hamrin Mountain, a range extending from Diyala province in the east to Kirkuk in the north. Soon a bearded and masked man described as "the commander" arrived and questioned Yousif. Upon examining his Iraqi identity card, he declared, "You are an agent with the Jews of Israel." When Yousif protested that he was a Christian from Iraq, the commander again called him a Jew and kicked him in the chest.

Initially, Yousif said, he did not believe these men were well-connected terrorists: "They behaved more like gang members searching for money." But with the questioning and accusations, he told WORLD, he began to doubt his instincts along with his ability to withstand the kidnapping and what might be ahead of him. He was overcome with despair about whether he would see his family again. "I felt too sad to remember my sons," then 6 and 12 years old, he recounted, his voice breaking with the memory of that moment even now, two years later.

The commander told Yousif that the ransom demanded to free him had been set-at $300,000. It was nearly 10 times usual ransom demands Yousif had encountered as a free man. "Kill me; it is better," Yousif told the commander.

But the kidnappers relayed the demand to a clergyman in Kirkuk who for security purposes goes by the name of Albert. When he heard the ransom demand, he said simply, "We don't have that amount of money."

It was then that the network Yousif for so many months had used to help others went to work for him. Albert, working with a party official named Wilson, contacted APP members, families who had benefited from Yousif's help, and Yousif's relatives. Albert and Wilson tapped into a network of Assyrian-affiliated émigrés living in Chicago, Detroit, and Canada. "I was very much involved with this situation and started making phone calls to raise money," said Elias Shamuel, an APP member who fled Iraq during the first Gulf War and is now an accountant and a U.S. citizen living in Chicago. Shamuel is from the same village in northern Iraq as Yousif and knew him from childhood. "Our priority was the release of Mr. Yousif unharmed. We did not care whether the ransom money would be used to fund terrorist groups or not."

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