Ask the expert: How safe are foreign workers in Iraq?

Aid agency, CARE International, has suspended its work in Iraq because of the kidnapping of its senior official in the country. British-Iraqi Margaret Hassan is the latest of more than 100 foreigners to be taken hostage in Iraq since 2003. More than 30 of them have been killed by their captors, but several have been released or have managed to escape.

Why are kidnappings still taking place? How safe is it for workers in Iraq?

You put your questions to Iraq Security Expert, Will Geddes in an interactive forum.

Transcript:

Emily Buchanan:
Hello and welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum, I'm Emily Buchanan.

The aid agency, CARE International, has suspended its work in Iraq because of the kidnapping of its senior official in the country.

British-Iraqi Margaret Hassan is the latest of more than a hundred foreigners to be taken hostage in Iraq since 2003. More than 30 of them have been killed by their captors, but several have been released or have managed to escape.

Is it becoming too dangerous for foreign workers to stay in Iraq? What is day-to-day life like for foreigners working there?

Well joining us to answer your questions is security expert Will Geddes from International Corporate Protection. Welcome Will.

Well we'll start with our first question from Nicola in London who says: Are these people so mad they'll even kidnap someone who's by marriage and by 30 years of living in Iraq almost one of their own?

Will Geddes:
Well I think we've got to consider Emily that kidnappers are going to run by a very - entirely different moral and ethic code to the rest of us. They will be working to their own agenda which will be to profit either by political motivation or by financial remuneration. And as such anybody is going to be potentially fair game.

Emily Buchanan:
Now Emanuel in Stockholm says: How well known is Margaret Hassan? I mean that is a big question isn't it - do the kidnappers actually know that they've kidnapped this woman who's really a local?

Will Geddes:
Well they may have. We've got to remember that CARE International have been operating in Iraq since 1991, since after the first Gulf War conflict. And Margaret Hassan apparently has been operating in the country, certainly for the last 15 years, so she would be quite well known within the local community. However, it isn't inescapable that the kidnappers might not have quite realised who they've captured.

Emily Buchanan:
Now Vanessa Assal in Tokyo, Japan asks, I think a very pertinent question: Is it in Margaret Hassan's favour that she's a woman and that she has Iraqi nationality? I mean given that a lot of kidnappers seem to want to protect women, in fact the kidnappers of Kenneth Bigley were talking about wanting to free women in Iraqi jails, why are they taking a woman?

Will Geddes:
Well again it's a difficult question to answer. It's a good question though and certainly if we refer back to the two Italian relief workers, the two women who'd been kidnapped, when they made it known to their kidnappers apparently that they were obviously relief workers then the kidnappers did treat them slightly better perhaps than they might have been. However, I don't think we can necessarily discount that because Margaret Hassan is a woman that she'll be treated any differently perhaps to a male hostage for the kidnappers to achieve their objective.

Emily Buchanan:
Right well Taufiq Aziz in Dhaka, Bangladesh says: I think aid workers in Iraq should be given proper security to do their job. How much security would someone like Margaret Hassan have?

Will Geddes:
Well a lot of care agencies and relief agencies, for example Oil for Food and other sort of humanitarian groups around the world will actually have reasonably good security. If it is not actually in the practical sense a physical presence of security guards it will be in contingency planning, it will be in hostile environment training, perhaps much like your own correspondents will receive before going into hostile environments. And they will be given quite a bit of advice. However, I do know of certain relief agencies that perhaps do not have the budget to afford for the security and therefore it's always going to be a gamble when they go into these territories.

Emily Buchanan:
That's right, because it is expensive isn't it.

Will Geddes:
It can be and again there is a certain question of the level of security - what is necessary - and that can vary quite drastically from one location to the next and also to the type of work that the individual might be carrying out.

Emily Buchanan:
Well can we move on now to the whole conditions for foreign workers now in Iraq? What is day-to-day life like, asks Kathryn from Cheltenham, how many foreign workers are there in Iraq?

Will Geddes:
Well again very difficult to calculate exactly how many because you have two particular types, if we can put them into groupings. You have the individuals who are working under governmentally issued contracts as part of the restructuring process and then you do have the privateers and those are the independent companies and entrepreneurs even who will go into country to exploit their own opportunities or to investigate their own opportunities perhaps of business within the country. The country is crying out obviously for assistance on a number of areas and therefore you've got a very high volume of ex-patriots and foreigners coming into the country on a daily basis.

Emily Buchanan:
Now Jack Colten from Sunderland says: Without seeming harsh are those who are kidnapped often actually breaking security guidelines - I'm sure the kind of guidelines that you would advise people on - or is just no one safe? I mean do you basically go to Iraq under your own risk and that's that?

Will Geddes:
Well a bit of both. Yes you do go to any hostile environment hopefully in full recognition of what you're walking into and the possible risks and exposure that you're going to be putting yourself to. In the same respect however, yes there are occasions - and I certainly know of them - where principals will disregard their security or even try and play games with their security to evade it, what reasons they have I don't know, and will put themselves at vulnerability to kidnappers by not following directives which are really there in their best interests.

Emily Buchanan:
I mean after all Kenneth Bigley didn't have security did he.

Will Geddes:
Well Mr Bigley apparently had some local security, it was some local security guards, however, they were unarmed. So I would say how much of an element of security that was I think was debatable.

Emily Buchanan:
Now Jean Pierre from France asks: Is it time to remove all aid workers from Iraq? I mean there are not that many there now are there.

Will Geddes:
Well there are quite a few. I think it would be a mistake because again we're trying to bring the country obviously into some state of repair and without the aid workers operating - the abject poverty, from my own experience, of when you're driving across the country you'll see people who are in very, very worst conditions and the aid and relief and humanitarian aid companies are critical for the rebuilding of the country.

Emily Buchanan:
Now I just want to move on now to a little bit more information that you might have for us on the kidnappers themselves. Hilary in London asks: Do the kidnappers all live in certain hotspots in Baghdad? I mean is Baghdad like a total maze which is why the hostages never seem to be found?

Will Geddes:
If it was that easy that would be fantastic. Unfortunately not. The criminals will move quite freely across the country because unlike say any other metropole around the world where you will have certain divisional borders or territories or neighbourhoods, in Baghdad you do have your neighbourhoods but there are very little controls restricting one moving from one location to another and as such the kidnappers can be very transient. And from the reports that I've certainly received and seeing many kidnappings will happen widespread across the country not solely in Baghdad, you'll find them in - certainly in places such as Basra, Falluja, Al Nasiriyah and there isn't any one particular element or core area where I'd say you really have the most focused of kidnappings.

Emily Buchanan:
Well let me move on now to Mohammad Atiqul Hassan in Kabul, Afghanistan, he asks: Do you think that all kidnaps taking place in Iraq are motivated by Islamic militant groups and not by opportunists for ransom?

Will Geddes:
I don't think they are motivated entirely by Islamic groups, I think it's very easy, perhaps even for the Western media, to put a blanket tag, if you like, to it being militant groups which are actually motivating these. You've got so many different types of organisations there, the vast majority I would say are criminally motivated for financial ransoms, which will they will make demands on their hostages.

Emily Buchanan:
Now we've just had a very present question from Russia, from Moscow, from Nadedja , a text message saying: Will kidnappings decrease once reconstruction starts to have an impact and life visibly improves?

Will Geddes:
Well if and when the actual police force and law enforcement structure has matured to an extent that it can maintain civil order then I think it will certainly decrease because the processes of investigation will be far better improved into each element of the community to ensure that in these events happening there are better reporting lines for that information to come to light. At the moment these don't exist and therefore the criminals and the kidnappers can pretty much act without impunity.

Emily Buchanan:
And of course the whole prospect of reconstruction just gets held back further when there are these kidnappings.

Will Geddes:
Absolutely because a lot of the contractors will be sufficiently restricted from moving because of the threat that they have to remain static and perhaps can't advance on the works that they have to do.

Emily Buchanan:
Yes, even though there's lots of money in the pot. Bill from Penryn in Cornwall says: Has kidnapping always been used by insurgents in insecure countries or has this become a big trend in Iraq?

Will Geddes:
Well we've seen it certainly across the world, certainly in the leading capitals of the world for kidnapping, used to be Colombia and Mexico, however, in all developing parts of the world where there is always going to be abject poverty there is always going to be kidnapping. Kidnapping is not - nothing new and it's been going on for many, many years

Emily Buchanan:
If we think of Colombia for instance there's been a lot hasn't there.

Will Geddes:
Well in Colombia, for example, there are five kidnappings a day on average. But much like Iraq the vast majority of those are not of ex-patriots, they're actually of local people.

Emily Buchanan:
Yes that's right, that's something we don't hear so much about is it, that a lot of it is local Iraqi businessmen.

Will Geddes:
Well a lot of the kidnaps in Iran, for example, mimic the kidnapping trends which have been carried out in Mexico, which are what we call express kidnaps or quick nappings. And what they will involve is taking a member of an Iraqi family or a businessman or his wife or children perhaps, making a smaller demand, perhaps a more accessible demand on a ransom that could be anywhere from $25,000 to a $100,000, so that they can count on a result being done fairly expediently and less likelihood of it being reported to the authorities.

Emily Buchanan:
Now just moving on to the religious leaders in Iraq. John Holmes in Canada asks: Could Iraq's religious leaders do more to stop these kidnappings? Surely someone must be pulling the strings.

Will Geddes:
Well it's difficult. Again if one could understand and comprehend the network on how the kidnapping infrastructures are operating and if there was any form of organisation in that kidnapping it would be far easier to quash and to address. The problem in Iraq is that you have so many different groups and you have some groups that may kidnap someone but align themselves to an affiliation - to Zarqawi or to anyone of the other well known sort of insurgent groups - by enabling themselves some umbrella coverage that they are a force to be reckoned with, when in fact it may be the theoretical two men and a dog who've actually done the kidnapping.

Emily Buchanan:
Right now there's one question here about Al Jazeera, well of course we tend to see the video footage of these kidnappings first on Al Jazeera. Peter Nixon from Middlesbrough in the UK asks: What is the role of Al Jazeera in the kidnappings? Why aren't the US and UK putting more pressure on governments like the UAE who must know something about the hostage takers?

Will Geddes:
Again there are different answers to this. Al Jazeera has obviously been used as an organisation to publish and certainly to promote aspects such as the videos of Margaret Hassan and Kenneth Bigley before and other hostages. Now that is a very useful conduit because there has to be some potential for which the proof of life's can be delivered. Now there are arguments to be said that perhaps they shouldn't be doing it and maybe it's salacious media broadcasting. However, in the same respect by bringing this information to a wider community you are also bringing that wider community to potentially problem solving and as such any proper security service group is more than likely monitoring the correspondence within Al Jazeera to see who are they communicating with and that can perhaps lead back to where some of these kidnapping gangs are operating.

Emily Buchanan:
Better to have it in the open in a way.

Will Geddes:
Indeed.

Emily Buchanan:
Now a question from Keith in St Leonards in the UK, the six million dollar question: What needs to be done to bring peace to Iraq? Is the new US plan to get heavy on the insurgents - thinking about Falluja here - the only option left?

Will Geddes:
It's a very, very difficult question and it is the six million dollar question. The key to the expedient rebuilding of Iraq will come down to reducing the lawlessness, by creating some law infrastructure and some protection for the Iraqi people as a whole. I myself have met a lot of Iraqi people, right across the country, 99% of them are very nice peace loving gentle people who want to see their country rebuilt. It is only a very small minority, although we hear these frequent reports, that are in fact trying to disrupt that process. Until there can be some civil order it's always going to be difficult for that restructuring process to be completed.

Emily Buchanan:
Well thank you very much Bill Geddes. That's all we have time for, my thanks to our guest and thanks to you all for your questions. But for now from me, Emily Buchanan, goodbye.