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Wednesday, April 14

Killing of Italian hostage heightens concerns about other captives

By Ana Radelat | GNS

WASHINGTON - The reported killing of an Italian hostage Wednesday heightened concerns over the fates of Mississippian Thomas Hamill and three to four dozen other U.S. and foreign nationals who have been abducted in Iraq over the last few weeks.

Michael Ledeen, an expert on foreign policy with the American Enterprise Institute, said rebels in Iraq are copying the tactics pro-Iran factions in Lebanon used during that country's civil war.

``There were suicide bombings, traditional acts of terrorism and hostage-taking in Lebanon and now you're seeing it in Iraq,'' Ledeen said.

Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language news network, said Wednesday it received a statement from a group calling itself the Green Brigade that said it had killed an Italian hostage because Italy's president, Silvio Berlusconi, said pulling his troops out of Iraq was "not in question."

The group sent the network a tape of the execution, but Al-Jazeera said it would not broadcast it because it is too graphic.

In a videotape that was broadcast by Al-Jazeera last weekend, masked rebels who held Hamill threatened to kill and mutilate him if U.S. troops didn't withdraw from the city of Fallujah - a Sunni insurgent stronghold.

The deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal has come and gone. The fate of Hamill, who works for Kellogg, Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, is unknown

The United States won the release of hostages in Lebanon by selling missiles, electronic goods and other embargoed items to Iran, Ledeen said.

And once again, the United States has made overtures to Iran, which is said to have links to the rebels in Iraq, Ledeen said.

Bob Klamser, a hostage negotiator and head of the Crisis Consulting International, said seizure of hostages by small groups of rebels with no central control or military hierarchy makes it difficult to negotiate for the release of the captives.

The United States has a freer hand to use force to release hostages in Iraq since it controls the country militarily, Klamser said. But the use of force to free Hamill and other hostages could be dangerous.

``Most hostages who die, die in those types of rescue attempts,'' he said. ``That's what's hard for family members to understand.''

Klamser said most hostages - about 92 percent of them - survive their captivity.

``So far, that appears to be true in Iraq,'' Klamser said. ``As long as the hostage is alive, there's objective reason to be hopeful.''

The Pentagon has said the United States ``would not negotiate with terrorists or hostage takers.''

But State Department policy is a little more flexible.

In a 2002 policy statement, the State Department said it would ``make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of hostages without making concessions to the hostage takers.''

Back channel negotiations and deals sometimes occur, such as the secret trading of arms for American hostages held in Iran that occurred during the Reagan administration.

In 1996, former Democratic Rep. Bill Richardson - now the governor of New Mexico - led a delegation to Sudan to persuade a rebel leader to free three Red Cross workers held hostage for 38 days. Richardson persuaded the rebels to drop a demand for millions of dollars in ransom in exchange for a promise of five tons of rice, four Jeeps, nine radios and a health survey for their disease-ridden camp.

Some rebels in Iraq have put a bounty on foreigners: $10,000 for an American, $5,000 for other foreigners.

``Iraq is a very dangerous place for a lot of reasons,'' said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department's office of consular affairs.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that the examination of four bodies found outside Baghdad on Tuesday was under way to determine if they are among seven U.S. citizens reported missing by Kellogg, Brown and Root.

``We can not confirm that the remains are KBR employees,'' Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said Wednesday.

Halliburton and its subcontractors have lost 30 employees to violence in the Kuwait-Iraq region, Hall said.

Faced with the growing threat of hostage-taking, U.S. allies this week began taking steps to protect their nationals.

On Wednesday, Russia said it would begin to evacuate more than 800 people working for Moscow contractors in Iraq and the French branch of the Red Cross said it had suspended its operations in Iraq because of the growing risk.

In addition, the British have warned against "all but the most essential travel" to Iraq. Thailand and New Zealand have confined their troops to quarters and may bring them home early.