Something told him he was alone.
Kudum Hussein Ali couldn’t be sure, because he was blindfolded. He only knew that the dusty house was still and that the gunmen who had been guarding him must either have gone out or fallen into a deep and silent sleep.
It was time to make a move.
Ali raised his tightly bound hands to his face and pushed the dark fabric off his eyes. The room was empty. Soundlessly, he crept into the hallway, down the stairs and to the front door, hoping to slip into the darkness without rousing his captors.
Kidnappings happen every day in Baghdad. A car blocks the road. Gunmen emerge and order their target into the trunk. The prey may resist momentarily, but it is futile. The men have guns, after all, and they usually work in teams.
The tale of Ali, a Shiite Muslim who survived a kidnapping, provides a rare look at the tactics used by captors and their prey as they try to outwit each other.
Abductions have become so common that, in May, the state-run National Insurance Co. began offering anti-terrorism coverage in life insurance policies, providing payouts for death or injury resulting from kidnapping.
“There was a missing link. We basically inserted that missing link,” said Sadik F. Khafaji, the company’s president.
The kidnapping epidemic is a reflection of the inability of the tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops to secure Baghdad’s streets, much less stop bombings and other terrorist attacks.
According to the Ministry of Interior, which oversees Iraqi police forces, at least 188 kidnappings had been reported in Baghdad this year as of July 1. U.S. and Iraqi law enforcement experts say the actual number is probably much higher because many Iraqis do not report kidnappings out of distrust of the security forces and fear that the abductors will kill their captives if they seek help from soldiers or the police.
Some abductions are for ransom. Others are carried out by Islamic militants opposed to what they consider the sacrilegious lifestyles of professors, journalists, professional women and other members of Iraq’s educated class.
Last month, Khafaji’s company announced a special discount in coverage to university professors, among its customers most at risk. The aim is to persuade them to remain in the country and not contribute to its “brain drain.”
“We consider them a national treasure, and we want them to stay,” Khafaji said.
Many abductions, like Ali’s, are driven by sectarian hatred between Sunnis and Shiites. That makes the violence in Iraq different from that in most countries convulsed by civil conflict.
“That’s not to say there has not been even more sectarian slaughter elsewhere,” said Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins. “But they weren’t really individual abductions like we are seeing in Iraq.”
Those abducted for ransom have a chance of survival if their families pay up. Kidnappers know that if they kill too many abductees after ransoms are paid, people will stop handing over money. And that would put them out of business.
Sectarian kidnappings are different. The perpetrators are driven by a desire to punish people for their religious faith. And few survive.
“The victim is not really a hostage to be used as a bargaining chip,” Jenkins said. “The victim is purely a victim.”
Ali would seem an unlikely candidate for abduction. He is not wealthy. He is not a religious or political activist and has lived quietly in the same neighborhood for many years. He is 54, married, with three sons and two daughters, and he works as a driver for a government ministry. But Ali’s wife is Sunni, and their house is in a mainly Sunni district of Baghdad called Sadiya.
On June 11, Ali left his home about 7 p.m. to run errands. A few minutes’ drive from his house, a car blocked his vehicle, and five men got out.
They looked like nice men, except for the assault rifles in their hands.
“They were not wearing masks. They were cleanshaven. They wore trousers and T-shirts,” Ali said. “They looked clean and handsome.”
Ali thought they wanted to steal his vehicle or rob him.
But they ordered him into their car. They wanted to ask him some questions, they said.
Then it dawned on Ali. “I realized I was about to be kidnapped.”
He began arguing loudly in hope of attracting attention, but nobody seemed to hear the commotion. Even if they did, it is unlikely they would have intervened, given the risks involved.
“I told them, ‘Kill me here, I will not go with you,’ ” Ali said. He offered them his car, or anything he had of value.
They said no and kept repeating, “We want to ask you some questions.”
One man popped open the car’s trunk. Others began hitting Ali with their rifles. Apparently swayed by his stubbornness, they bundled him into the back seat instead of the trunk. Ali clearly was not the sort of captive to lie quietly in the trunk, and if he began pounding, it might attract attention.
Then, they bound his eyes and tied his wrists.
Ali guessed his captors must be Sunnis, because insurgents had been trying to clear his neighborhood of Shiites. His survival depended on convincing them that he too was a Sunni.
When the car stopped, Ali was led into a house, and the interrogation began.
“They asked me, are you Shiite or Sunni? I immediately told them I am a Sunni,” said Ali, who was not carrying the national ID card that lists a person’s tribal name, indicating religious sect.
They asked him about his tribe. He told them he was Hamdani, the same tribe as his Sunni wife. They asked him where he came from. Ali told them Yousifiya, a farming town in the heavily Sunni area just south of Baghdad. They peppered him with questions about tribal sheiks and other details aimed at tripping him up.
He was relieved that he had forgotten his cellphone at home. The names stored in its directory could have revealed his identity.
But the kidnappers were far from convinced. One put a knife to his neck and drew it back, just enough to make a slight cut. Another held a knife sharpener to his ears and slashed a blade against it.
“One of them said, ‘We are going to go out and ask around about you. If we find that you are Shiite, you will be dead. You will be killed in the most vicious manner,’ ” Ali said.
For two hours, they kept up the interrogation. Ali stuck to his story.
Suddenly, he was shoved out of the house and driven with two other captives to another residence. Each was put in a different room upstairs.
Left alone, Ali pushed the blindfold up just enough to survey his surroundings. The room was filthy and barely furnished. He guessed it had belonged to a Shiite family driven from the area. He could hear people calling out to each other. He assumed they were other captives.
“I had no hope at all,” said Ali, who knew that once his captors hit the streets and asked enough questions, they would trace his identity. “I said to myself, I am going to be killed, no doubt about it. So I figured I had no option but to escape.”
He pulled the blindfold back over his eyes and began pondering his escape.
Then he waited.
“At a very late hour, just before dawn, I felt they all were asleep,” he said. “It was calm.”
He slowly twisted his hands around and used his fingers to loosen the ties that bound them. Then he lifted the blindfold and crept into the other upstairs rooms to help the other captives.
“We are going to be killed. This is our last chance to survive,” he told them as he hurriedly untied their hands.
Together, the three men walked softly downstairs. To their astonishment, they saw that the key to the front door was in the lock. They opened it, careful not to make a sound. Outside, they hoisted themselves over the garden wall to avoid opening the clanging metal gate leading onto the street.
Then, as dawn began to break, they ran.
“It was as if I was in a dream. I could hardly believe what I had done,” Ali said.
After a few minutes, they found a neighborhood fire brigade, where they were ushered inside.
Soldiers came and took the three men to their headquarters. In the confusion and euphoria, none of them had checked the address of the house where they had been held. There was no way to trace the abductors. Of his fellow captives, Ali says one was Sunni and one was Shiite, but that’s all he knows.
At about 9:30 that morning, more than 24 hours after he was abducted, Ali returned to the house where for 11 years he had lived peacefully alongside his Sunni neighbors.
His family believed he had been killed and was preparing a memorial service.
For months, Ali had dismissed some relatives’ warnings that he should move. Sectarianism had never been an issue on his block, and besides, he could not afford to rent a house elsewhere.
“I was not afraid, until this happened,” he said.
The day after he returned home, Ali and his family moved in with relatives in a Shiite district.
The first morning in the new house, he awoke with a fright.
“I thought I was still at the kidnappers’ house, until I heard the sounds of my kids in my relatives’ house,” he said. “I thanked God for my safety.”
Times staff writers Mohammed Rasheed, Saif Hameed, and Said Rifai contributed to this report.