Freed Iraqi Hostage Tells His Harrowing Tale
They called him “the big fish” and blindfolded him with his own tie.
Raad Ommar, a 59-year-old businessman from La Crescenta, was in his upscale Baghdad office writing e-mails when his guard came running in. Downstairs, said the agitated guard, men in military uniforms were hauling away Ommar’s clients and employees.
Moments later, Ommar, too, was crammed into the backseat of an unmarked sport utility vehicle, his hands cuffed and his tie tight across his eyes.
He was delivered to a building teeming with prisoners, and his captors wrapped his face with duct tape, from forehead to the bridge of his nose, Ommar said.
His suit was drenched with sweat in the hot, humid room, he recalled. He had difficulty breathing and his heart was racing.
And he was beaten repeatedly with a paddle.
Three and a half years earlier, Ommar had arrived in Baghdad full of hope. After decades in America, he had returned to the country of his birth with dreams of making a difference.
Ommar had left Baghdad in the early days of the Baath Party rule, after two sinister episodes. Once, he recalled, he and several friends were beaten by the secret police without provocation. Another time, he saw bodies hung from telephone poles at a downtown Baghdad square. There was no explanation of who the victims were or who had done it, Ommar said. “I was really spooked.”
Moving to America in 1969, he lived first in Kansas City and later headed west, starting a family and finally settling in La Crescenta. He worked in marketing and sales for large electronics firms before starting his own company. When the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, he was overjoyed, returning home to Baghdad in April and forming the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce. The small-business owners organization was unaffiliated with the American government and akin to a local chamber of commerce in the States.
Thousands of Iraqis joined during the heady days after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said. Before long, Ommar had moved his office from the upscale Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad to even grander surroundings on Arasat, the Baghdad equivalent of Fifth Avenue. Near the Japanese Embassy, he built his dream office of glass and marble.
The divorced Ommar also fell in love with an Iraqi woman named May. They were married in 2005 and lived in an apartment above the chamber’s headquarters.
On July 31 shortly after 1 p.m., the men in military uniforms toting M-16 machine guns raided a cellphone company next door. After people in Ommar’s office questioned the kidnappers, he and seven other men from his office were seized too. All told, the gunmen, who Ommar believes were members of Iraqi security forces, abducted 26 Iraqis that afternoon, having them kneel with guns to their temples on Arasat Street before whisking them away.
“Those guys who came and picked me up were not rogue guys,” he said. “They had the equipment and the cars.”
Interior Ministry officials reached by phone did not comment on the allegations.
Some prisoners appeared to be criminals or insurgents, but others, including Ommar and his co-workers, were held for ransom.
“It was a very busy place, almost like a factory,” Ommar said. “They were not confused about what they were supposed to do,” he said, referring to the guards.
The hostages included foreigners. One man kept asking for water in Spanish. Next to him, two men lay slumped on the floor. Ommar asked them how long they had been kept in the prison. Since the 15th, they told him.
“I realized they had lost all sense of time,” he said.
Other prisoners were clearly suspected insurgents.
“It was almost a fait accompli that they were going to get rid of them,” Ommar said. The guards would ask the suspected rebels to stick their tongues out and then hit them with an iron bar under the chin, among other things, he said.
At one point, the guards shaved the heads of eight prisoners in “some sort of ritual,” Ommar said. “I heard people talking about ‘the farm’ and that ‘the tractor was ready.’ ”
He speculated the men were about to be executed and buried in a mass grave in a rural part of Baghdad.
“They also said, ‘The judge will decide,’ ” Ommar said. American intelligence officials believe that Shiite militias have extrajudicial religious courts, presided over by clerics.
Ommar, himself a Shiite, believes his guards were young men from the Shiite slum of Sadr City.
“They were all very brutal,” he said. “It reminded me of the days of Saddam.”
The guards had begun referring to him as “the big fish.”
Using his cellphone, they called his pregnant wife, demanding $500,000 for Ommar and the seven others from his office.
“I was so afraid because I’m pregnant and I wanted him to see his baby but I never, never, never showed the kidnappers that I was afraid,” May recalled this week.
Realizing the guards were Shiites, Ommar had played up the fact that he comes from a prominent Shiite family. When he told the kidnappers that his wife’s family was descended from the prophet Muhammad, they began to address her with the honorific alwiya.
“ ‘I respect you like my sister,’ ” May said she was told by the main negotiator.
She notified Ommar’s brother, mother and daughter, Nadia Burris, 27, of San Diego. May also contacted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for help. Hostage negotiators from the FBI told her to stall the kidnappers by only offering small increments of money.
Embassy officials confirmed they had assisted the family but would not provide details.
The strategy backfired, May said. The captors became angry when she said she could not raise the money they asked for.
“I stopped listening to the American advice and dealt with it, using the Iraqi mentality,” she said.
May began emptying bank accounts and selling her jewelry. On the third day, Ommar told her: “I don’t think I can last. Get it done now.”
The change of tone scared May. “I realized Raad was really in deep trouble,” she said.
She managed to pull together $320,000, and the kidnappers agreed to release Ommar on the condition she deliver the money.
On Aug. 5, five days after Ommar was abducted, kidnappers directed May to place the money in a bag on the front seat of a car with the motor running near Palestine Street.
“They seemed to be very organized,” May said.
At the prison, where Ommar was told that May was going to deliver the ransom, “it felt like Russian roulette,” he said.
Two hours later, he was taken by SUV to an alleyway in a residential neighborhood and tossed out of the car.
“Your wife really loves you,” the driver said before ejecting him. He also advised Ommar to leave Iraq.
A few days later, May secured the release of six of the seven others by paying an additional $50,000. One employee is still missing.
“She really saved my life,” Ommar said. “She’s an incredible negotiator.”
Although his organization will continue in new and more fortified offices, it will be run by his employees. Ommar and his wife are moving to Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq, he said, sitting in a hotel room among the debris of an uprooted life -- scattered clothes and files from his office. A year ago, Ommar married May in this hotel.
Now, living in this area of Iraq has become untenable, he said. Nothing is what it seems. There are “mirage checkpoints” throughout the city, he said, adding that members of the government’s security forces double as criminals and killers.
“What are you supposed to do when someone gets kidnapped?” he asked. Whom do you call?
“The whole situation right now, more than any other time, there is a lot of mystery to it,” he said, adding darkly, “I expect this thing is going to get worse.”