Arkan Suleiman, 32, was just doing his job, driving his delivery truck between Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq's north and Najaf, in the south, when he was kidnapped. He had been travelling in a convoy of several trucks but lost track of his fellow drivers when, on Sept. 4, he was forced to stop at a checkpoint in the Muqdadiya area of the Diyala provinc
“Five armed men wearing military uniforms, driving a Ford car, had set up a checkpoint on the road in Muqdadiya,” Suleiman told NIQASH. “They stopped the truck and they kidnapped me. The armed men were carrying the flags that usually belong to the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias. They took me from the road to an orchard and then they put me in a civilian car and drove me to a family house.”
Suleiman says he knows that the road south is dangerous and he is usually scared to drive it alone, hence the convoy. But, he says, he also has to provide for his family.
The kidnapping was not political, Suleiman knows. “It's a kind of a business too,” he explains. “The men called one of my brothers in Khanaqin using my own mobile phone and asked for US$30,000 to release me. Then the men wanted to take me somewhere else. But I managed to jump out of their car and get away from them. The next day I managed to get back to Khanaqin,” he recalls his lucky escape.
Local security sources say that Suleiman is far from the only Iraqi Kurdish local kidnapped this way; they estimate that around 50 locals have been abducted on the road between the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, since the beginning of this year. Some of the victims were released, others were killed. And most often those who escaped their kidnappers say that the perpetrators are members of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who came together to defend the country against the security threat posed by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. However, since the militias were formed, they have become increasingly controversial, with some members accused of everything from looting and arson to war crimes.
Khalid Walid, a resident of Klar in Iraqi Kurdistan was kidnapped in the same place as Suleiman in late March this year, together with a friend. The pair were traveling to Baghdad when they were stopped at a checkpoint by a group of armed men wearing military uniforms.
“They had the flag of one of the popular Shiite Muslim militias on their car,” he notes. “First we thought they were government troops, arresting us in a case of mistaken identity. But they blindfolded us and then took us to a family house nearby.”
At first the kidnappers demanded half a million US dollars to free the pair but after six days they settled for US$150,000 and they also took the Toyota pick-up the friends had been travelling in and all the cash they'd had on them. Taking the car was more unusual for the kidnappers, most of the time reports indicate they leave their victims' cars on the road and allow family members to collect them.
“We know where they held us and if there was a military force that could arrest these men, then we would be ready to return there,” Walid says. “But we don't have much hope of that – the government works together with the Shiite militias.”
Hassan Abbas, a taxi driver from the Kafri district in Iraqi Kurdistan, has a similar tale to Suleiman's. Abbas works as a taxi driver, taking locals on the difficult route between Kirkuk and Baghdad. He was kidnapped on the outskirts of Baghdad on August 24 together with one of his passengers.
“An armed group of nine people wearing military uniforms kidnapped us on the road between the official Ghalibiya checkpoint and the Ghalibiya police station,” Abbas recalls. “There's about 300 meters between the two and I have no doubt that the surveillance cameras around the police station would have filmed everything.”
The gunmen drove a black car and were in possession of a Russian-made heavy machine gun. They pretended they were taking orders from the government and they told Abbas and his passengers that they were looking for wanted criminals. “Then they blindfolded us and drove us for about two hours,” Abbas says.
After this they called Abbas' family and demanded US$1 million to let him go. Abbas says he told the gunmen his family didn't have that kind of money and that they may as well kill him now, if that's what they were after. A week after Abbas was kidnapped he was released somewhere in-between the Qazanya and Mandali districts in the Diyala province because, as he found out later, his family had managed to raise US$60,000 for the kidnappers by selling his car and his house.
The abductions have been going on for some time. In May 2015, four of the security personnel belonging to the Iraqi Kurdish presidential detail were kidnapped when returning from Kirkuk, on the Atheem road. Nobody knows what happened to them.
But while locals seem only too well aware of this trend for kidnapping Iraqi Kurdish travellers, it was difficult to get a comment from Iraqi Kurdish security as to what they were doing about it. A spokesperson for the Asayish in the Karmayan area – more of a kind of Iraqi Kurdish secret police or intelligence service than the civilian police – said they didn't have any information on the subject of the kidnappings and that the matter was to be handled by the local police. Meanwhile the police spokesperson said the Asayish should be taking care of it.
One person who was willing to confirm the kidnappings was Iraqi Kurdish MP, Shakhwan Abbas, who is also a member of the Iraqi Parliament's Security and Defence Committee.
“We have come to the conclusion that some of the members of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias are involved in these kidnappings and we believe they are working together with some Iraqi military intelligence officers, in some cases,” Abbas told NIQASH. “A committee has actually been formed to investigate this issue and it is composed of two Shiite Muslim MPs. The special committee has already asked to question the commander of Tigris Operations Command.”
The latter is a special military command post based in Kirkuk.
“In some of the cases, the kidnappers get the money but they don't release the hostages. Instead they kill them,” Abbas continued. Asked whether he believes there is any way of stopping the kidnappers or bringing them to justice, Abbas was not particularly optimistic. “Eventually all the cases are simply closed because all the power is in the hands of the Shiite militias themselves,” he explained.
NIQASH tried to contact Karim Nouri, the spokesperson for the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, but only received a call from one of Nouri's colleagues saying that there would be “no comment” on this subject.