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Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 20:01 UK

Iraqis terrorised by child kidnaps

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

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Reports suggest the kidnapping of children is increasing in Iraq'

As sectarian violence declines in Iraq and the security situation improves, Iraqis face a new threat to a peaceful life: violent crime.

Baghdad has been hit by a spate of kidnappings, mostly targeting children.

Police say that, while some gangs are motivated simply by money, they believe insurgent groups are increasingly using criminal activities to finance themselves, as the security forces cut off other lines of funding.

Muntadar's tragedy

The Mousauwi family is in mourning: women crying, dressed from head to toe in black; men - sitting on a row of chairs - hold their heads in their hands.

An Iraqi schoolgirl
Schools across Iraq are taking extra security measures to protect pupils

On 30 September, 11-year-old Muntadar was snatched off the streets of Baghdad. The family never saw him alive again.

"Look at the place where they kept him," his father Yussef says, pointing to a poor quality photograph sent to him by the kidnappers. "A child his age, kept in a place like this. Look how scared he looks."

The kidnappers contacted Yussef, by phone, and he agreed to pay a ransom of $25,000.

"They called me to tell me that they got the money and that they would free my son in about an hour. But I believe they killed him the same day they kidnapped him. I paid the ransom but I didn't get my son back."

The kidnappers have since been caught. They were from the same area of Baghdad as the Moussauwi family. In fact they lived just across the street.

Over a week after Muntadar was taken, neighbours alerted the police to a strong smell coming from a nearby building. It was here that they found Muntadar's decomposing body, disfigured by acid.

"They had tried to hide the body by covering it in rubble," Yussef said.

But they couldn't hide the stench, which still hangs thickly in the air.

School patrols

Many cases go unreported, because relatives are worried about antagonising the kidnappers.

Brig Gen Faisal Mohsin
Faisal Mohsin says some of the ransom money is funding insurgents

The authorities say they cannot provide figures for exactly how many kidnappings have taken place since the beginning of the year, but some estimates suggest the number could be as high as one per day.

Brig Gen Faisal Mohsin, a senior police commander in Baghdad, told the BBC he believed at least some of the ransom money was funding insurgent activity.

"Iraqi forces have become more professional now, and they are on high alert," he said, "pursuing all kinds of crime, and cutting off the sources that fund terrorism. So some of the terrorists have started financing their activities by kidnapping children."

The situation has become so acute in Baghdad that the ministry of education has instructed schools to take special precautions.

They have increased security patrols and checkpoints in and around schools, instructing teachers not to allow children to go home with anyone except their parents, or on special school buses.

Lucky Rawan

Taiseer has three children and lives in a modest house next to a mosque in southern Baghdad.

Rawan
Rawan's father believes she was drugged

His middle daughter, Rawan, is lucky to be safe at home, playing in their walled front garden with a new teddy bear. Her father gave it to her as a present, after she was released last month.

Four-year-old Rawan says she can't remember much about her ordeal. Her father believes she was drugged.

But when the kidnappers realised the family simply did not have the money to pay, they let her go. The gang that took her has not been caught.

Taiseer says he looks forward to the day when his daughter can go to school or out to play unaccompanied.

But for now, while explosions and killings may have declined in Baghdad, parents are increasingly fearful for their children's safety.



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