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“They Are Not Enemies of the Iraqi People”–Italian and Iraqi Aid Workers Kidnapped in Baghdad

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In one of the most chilling abductions in the wave of kidnappings that has gripped Iraq, two Italian and two Iraqi humanitarian workers of the Italian organization “A Bridge to Baghdad” were abducted by 20 armed men in broad daylight. We go to Italy to speak with the coordinator of “A Bridge to Baghdad” and we speak with Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness. [includes rush transcript]

International Aid organizations and non-governmental organizations are deciding whether to stay in Iraq after the abduction earlier this week of two Italian and two Iraqi humanitarian workers in broad daylight in Baghdad.

It was one of the most chilling abductions in a country gripped by a wave of kidnappings. Witnesses said that on Tuesday 20 men armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols with silencers stopped vehicles in a busy commercial area of the capital and raided a building housing the humanitarian organization “A Bridge to Baghdad,” which has operated in Iraq since 1992. The gunmen took Italians Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, along with Iraqi staffers Raad Ali Abdul Azziz and Mahnaz Bassam. Witnesses say the gunmen dragged Bassam away by her hair screaming. Since April foreigners from more than two dozen countries have been kidnapped as guerrillas try to force foreign troops and firms to leave. More than 20 have been killed.

It still isn’t clear who abducted the aid workers or why. A statement posted on an Islamic Web site by a group calling itself Ansar al Zawahiri, claimed responsibility and said the kidnapping marked “the first of our attacks against Italy.” The group demanded that Italy withdraw its troops and “stop killing Muslims in Iraq and cooperating with American forces.” But there was no way of authenticating the statement, which was not accompanied by the photos or video footage typically issued by the groups who have seized more than 100 foreign hostages in Iraq this year.

During the more than a decade of economic sanctions against Iraq, most humanitarian organizations refused to operate in the country. But A Bridge to Baghdad defied that in the belief that the suffering of civilians should not be used as a political bargaining chip. The group opposed the sanctions, it opposed the invasion, and it opposes the occupation. In Italy, the group has been a leading critic of the government’s decision to join the US-led coalition.

Dozens of organizations around the world have signed on to an appeal to the kidnappers, saying that the 4 hostages “are not enemies of the Iraqi people. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in calling for an immediate end to the occupation. We appeal to those holding them to release them immediately.

  • Ornella Sangiovanni, coordinator of the Italian humanitarian group, A Bridge to Baghdad. Until the beginning of the invasion, she was the head of the organization’s anti-sanctions campaign. She has worked with A Bridge to Baghdad since 1996.
  • Kathy Kelly, co-founder of the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness. She worked closely with A Bridge to Baghdad for many years in Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two people — Kathy Kelly is with us, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness. She worked closely with A Bridge to Baghdad for many years in Iraq. We’re also joined from Italy by Ornella Sangiovanni. She was head of the organization’s anti-sanctions campaign. She has worked with A Bridge to Baghdad since 1996. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ornella, let’s start with you. Can you talk about what you know at this point and how people in Italy right now are responding?

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: Well, Amy what we do know is exactly what you said now. We don’t know any new information. We don’t have further information. This is what we got from the news wires. There’s nothing more we know. While the response of the Italians has been stunning, really, that people are taking to the streets all over Italy in small self-organized and some small and some larger self-organized events, and nationwide people are — you know, taking to the streets organizing vigils, organizing sit-ins and organizing demonstrations, marches, it’s really — we are so touched. We are so touched by this huge nationwide response, huge solidarity, this warm feeling we feel around us.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who the four workers are? Can you tell us about them personally?

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: Well, I can talk about three workers, because two Italians are our people, and one Iraqi. One of those kidnapped is one Iraqi working for us. I don’t know much about the fourth one because she works — she is working with another Italian N.G.O. So, what I do know about them is the two women, the two Italian women, one of them I have known her since a long time she joined the association in 1996, Simona Torretta. She has been active both in humanitarian action work throughout all of those years. She went to Iraq several times. She was there back in Iraq since early April, last year, at the outbreak of the war. And then she stayed there coordinating our activities. The other woman, Simona Pari, she joined us last year, last fall. Actually, she was working with save the children first, and then she joined us in a program for helping children, and she has saved — stayed working with us — she was in charge of the program to get children back to schools, a huge program we have in several schools in Baghdad, primary schools in Baghdad. She has been there for the last, almost year coordinating this project. And the Iraqi who was kidnapped is a wonderful person. Cathy Olsen could say something about him because she knew him. He is an engineer, and he is an academic. He was coordinating our work. In fact, he was a cornerstone of our office in Baghdad. He organized recently our aid conveys to Fallujah in the spring and then to Najaf and really bearing most of the weight of organizing working in Iraq. Wonderful person.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, do you know him? Can you describe your work with him? Kathy works with voices in the wilderness, describing one of the four aid workers who were abducted, Raad Ali Abdul Aziz.

KATHY KELLY: One thing I noticed is that almost every person that traveled over to Iraq who met him would want to come back to the United States telling stories about this extraordinary person. His life and interest has made it so accessible to better understand that Iraqis are ordinary people with loves and interests very similar to ours. The first time I met Raad, showing me a picture of a Frank Lloyd Wright building and asking me, do you know any chance about this building? It was one near our home here in Chicago. He was so easily thrilled with the gift of a book or certain pictures that he prizes. Among the pictures that he most prizes are ones of the stars that he has taken himself. Because every time that there was a protracted war in his country, when he was a kid as age seven, when he was a teen-ager, most recently during the Desert Fox and Shock and Awe Campaign, he has known when the lights go out all over Baghdad, that is one time when you pull out a telescope and you can study the stars as never before. His avocation is an amateur astronomer was developed when bombs were exploding nearby. He, like Simona Torretta who I have deep admiration for, could not be deterred by the fears that can often overtake people immediately after the shock and awe campaign ended, they were both out and about trying to device ways to be practical of great service, and that Bridges to Baghdad has done, plus their character in the way they have approached these enormously complicated and difficult situations has always been a witness toward the most humanitarian kind of effort possible. It’s a nightmare to think of these people being abducted and subjected, perhaps, to great fear and punishment at this moment, but most of all, I think we need to uphold what they have stood for as a witness against war.

AMY GOODMAN: Ornella, have you heard any more about this organization calling itself, Ansar al-Zawahri, which has claimed responsibility and said that the kidnapping marks, quote, “the first of our attacks against Italy?”

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: What I do know is that since the first time this name appears and what I read in the newspapers is that the claim isn’t deemed credible. I mean, experts say that. Of course, I have — we have no way of — I have no way to tell whether it’s true or credible. But what I am hearing and what I am reading that it is not deemed credible. They say the language they used in the statement is not credible.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Kathy, you have more details than we have read in the paper about how planned this abduction was. About two of the people actually going in dressed as businessmen. Can you describe what you know?

KATHY KELLY: There is the description that witnesses said it was very, very chilling, that the people who surrounded the house where bridges to Baghdad’s office was located were holding ak-47’s with silencers and pistols that two men dressed in — more of a business suit type apparel went in and dragged out the four workers, that this did seem to be not a kind of criminal robbery-abduction aimed at getting a ransom, but Ornella says, there is simply no information available. We don’t know why these four people were chosen. We don’t know who has done this. It’s part of what makes such a nightmare of it. I can imagine that Ornella and all of the staff in Rome are frantic for this knowledge. Yet there’s — it’s just simply not there. Again, it’s a consequence of war and occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ornella, what are you doing in Iraq right now? Are you making any special appeals in the Iraqi press?

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: Well, in fact what we are doing, we are issuing several appeals, and we have them translated into Arabic. We are spreading this appeal in different mailing lists, and websites and trying to reach the Iraqi press and we do have some local partners to local N.G.O.’s who are still working with us, but I know — what I know is they are mobilizing and they are organizing events, and they are organizing demonstrations. One was supposed to take place today in Baghdad with children and women calling for the release of our Italian and Iraqi hostages.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a minute but when we come back, I wanted to ask you about the politics of the occupation in Italy, and how people have responded. You’re a long-time anti-war group. Yet Berlusconi, the head of Italy, is a very close ally of President Bush. I’d like to get the latest on that political situation in light of the kidnappings. We’re talking with Kathy Kelly and Ornella Sangiovanni about the kidnapping of the four workers at a bridge to Baghdad. We’ll be back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We are wrapping up our discussion about the four people two Italian, two Iraqis who were kidnapped from a Bridge to Baghdad, the peace organization based in Baghdad, Iraq. We’re speaking with the head of the organization in Rome, Italy, Ornella Sangiovanni as well as Kathy Kelly, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness that worked closely with a bridge to Baghdad. Ornella, the politics of the occupation in Iraq, and what Berlusconi’s response is now, a close ally of Bush.

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: Unfortunately, I have to stress that the country which has the biggest anti-war movement in Western Europe, Italy, has also one of the few governments supporting shamefully, the politics of war, of President Bush. I wouldn’t say the United States. I wouldn’t say the United States I would say President Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been — the response to the kidnapping?

ORNELLA SANGIOVANNI: Well, the response to the kidnapping has been of shame and outrage, I mean, by the people. The response from the government they just — they summoned the opposition leaders. They thought that this time they would probably need the support of the opposition leaders in the house and senate. They felt that they wouldn’t be able to handle politically the situation by majority only, and there’s a strange feeling that we — we don’t know actually — we hope — we hope that the government is going to handle the situation doing no harm. We don’t know whether they — it will do any good, but we do hope that they’re going to do no harm and in the past, they did not show — there’s no — there’s not very much reason to be confident. In fact, they didn’t show very particularly skillful in handling the situation, even recently. We had a journalist, freelance journalist, the Islamic person kidnapped, and killed very, very quickly by a so-called Islamic group. Maybe the way the government handled the situation or maybe the way they didn’t handle the situation has been very, very poor. They don’t have a good record.

AMY GOODMAN: Ornella Sangiovanni, I want to thank you for being with us. Also, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness. We will certainly continue to follow the story. Ornella, the head of bridge to Baghdad, speaking to us from Rome other colleagues were kidnapped in Baghdad. This is Democracy Now!

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