WASHINGTON, July 22 (UPI) -- The "war" in Iraq is suddenly taking a very different turn, and regrettably, not one for the better. After first targeting the military, then changing tactics by kidnapping hostages and holding them in exchange for the withdrawal of Coalition troops -- and one may add with some success -- the "insurgents" are now going after the soft underbelly of Iraq, its fragile economy.
A new rebel group, hitherto unknown, calling themselves the "Black Banners" is the latest to surface. They join the plethora of armed groups opposed to the presence of foreign forces, particularly American soldiers, in Iraq. The Black Banners have detained six hostages: three Indians, two Kenyans and an Egyptian, all nationals from "neutral" nations.
The abducted men work as simple truck drivers for a Kuwaiti company. The kidnappers have threatened to behead one of their captives every 72 hours, beginning Saturday, if the Kuwaiti company does not agree to withdraw from Iraq by the set deadline.
The intriguing development in this new incident is that none of the countries involved in this latest round of abductions contribute troops to the U.S-led coalition serving in Iraq.
Furthermore, the Black Banners abductors demand that the countries concerned -- Kenya, Egypt and India -- withdraw all their citizens from Iraq, and stop doing business with the Americans. This request may be somewhat complicated to initiate.
As far as the Kenyans are concerned, withdrawing their nationals from Iraq should not be too difficult. There could not be too many Kenyans working in Iraq. But when it comes to the Egyptians and Indians, the issue becomes far more complicated.
India, a country with the world's second-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia, has long maintained excellent relations with Iraq. Even during Saddam Hussein's rule and throughout the more than a decade of U.N.-imposed economic sanctions, the two nations maintained cordial ties. The exact number of Indians working in Iraq is difficult to establish as some have entered the country illegally, coming from Kuwait.
Currently, it is estimated that there might be anywhere from 1,200 to 5,000 Indian workers employed throughout Iraq, working in mostly menial jobs. Prewar estimates were as high as 100,000.
Egypt, too, has most probably tens of thousands of its nationals working in Iraq. Most of them are also employed in low-paying jobs.
Repatriating such large numbers would require a monumental effort and would create an exodus of Biblical proportions, similar to the massive evacuation of foreigners that had to be undertaken after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
So why would an insurgent group -- purported to be acting in the national interest -- demand the forced removal of people involved in rebuilding their country? One could only presuppose that having successfully pressured several nations, such as the Philippines, Spain and a number of Latin American states to withdraw their forces, the insurgents are now re-directing their efforts to undermine Iraq's economy. The aim of such a move would be to push Iraq into an economic abyss, hoping that the United States' post-invasion effort of rebuilding the country and "bringing democracy" would be guaranteed failure.
Cripple the economy and the country comes to a standstill. The rebels may be applying the old communist theory that in order to "win," they must first run the system into the ground. Why else would they demand the departure of people and businesses involved in reconstructing Iraq's war-tattered infrastructure and frail economy? People with no ties to the "occupation forces."
The answer may well be found upon further analyzing who would benefit from a weakened Iraq. That, in itself, may not be easy to interpret as the list could be long. First, is Iraq's timeless rival, Iran, with whom Iraq fought a bloody eight-year war. The Iraq-Iran war caused around a million deaths and saw the deployment of chemical weapons (by Iraq). Iran is not likely to forget that. The mullahs in Tehran remain extremely wary of a reconstituted and re-militarized Iraq. But on the other hand, an unstable Iraq can also be very unsettling for Iran, as well as Iraq's other neighbors.
The fact that the group is calling itself the Black Banners may offer a hint regarding their identity. Members of the Shiite community traditionally fly black banners, usually during certain religious holidays, such as Ashoura, or at funerals.
Then again, the Black Banners could just as easily be a cover name used by a number of groups working for any of Iraq's enemies who would like to see it remain in a weakened state. Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi comes to mind.
Zarqawi is a fundamentalist Sunni with deep loathing of the Shiites, and could have used the name to make it seem as if the Shiites are behind these abductions, discrediting them. The symbolism of the "black flags" is so obvious, that it immediately conjures up a certain doubt. The name was most certainly chosen to add confusion, a probability confirmed by a former intelligence specialist familiar with the region.
"I really don't see Shiite organizations engaging in these types of kidnapping, especially given the general negative reaction to the beheadings," Matt Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who specializes in terrorism, told United Press
"There is just no precedent for this in the Iraq context."
In sum, this new phase in hostage taking might be the start of a distressing new trend in the Iraq war, one that could further damage the economy if hundreds of thousands of workers who help make the country function were to suddenly leave.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)