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A Discussion of the Kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, CARE’s Iraq Director

October 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The international aid director was kidnapped four days ago. For more on Margaret Hassan’s kidnapping we turn to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post correspondent, who just ended his tour as the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief. Welcome. Margaret Hassan is someone you’ve met, used as a resource in your reporting. Tell me your impressions of the woman.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Margaret Hassan is just an incredible woman who literally has devoted the plus ten years of her life of helping the Iraqi people out. I first met her almost two years ago in my first trip to Iraq in the fall of 2002, and I wanted to find out what was really happening with Iraqi civilians living under the U.N. economic sanctions that were placed on the country.

Margaret was one of a very few number of international aid workers operating in there and she had been heading up the CARE office in Iraq for more than a decade. Prior to that, she had been teaching English for the British Council in Iraq, a position that made her very well known among educated Iraqis and even before that actually had a brief career reading the English news on Iraqi TV, so a very prominent person and a woman who really had devoted her life to helping the situation of ordinary Iraqis both before the war who were suffering under economic sanctions and after the war in the very sort of chaotic climate that was there helping out and directing projects involving water, sanitation and health care.

RAY SUAREZ: So there’s that background you cite 30 years on the ground in Iraq. She remained in Baghdad when the invasion was under way. She even traveled to Britain to speak against the war and speak to the members of the British parliament to advise them against joining the invasion. Didn’t these things make her an unlikely kidnap target?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Certainly. I mean she’s the last possible person you might imagine being at risk for kidnapping because she was… she had very clear views about the military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and really was somebody who was out in an apolitical way helping the people of Iraq. But this demonstrates yet again there really is no litmus test here for the sorts of work foreigners do in Iraq in the eyes of the insurgents; a number of foreign aid workers now have been kidnapped. Two Italian aid workers were taken, subsequently released, thankfully. But headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross was bombed last year.

Nothing is sacrosanct to the insurgents these days and even a woman like Margaret Hassan, although she holds Iraqi nationality being of British origin and holding British citizenship is seen as a prominent and legitimate target for the insurgents in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any pattern at all not to who is being kidnapped but to who is being killed?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, to date one thing that we can take a little comfort from is the insurgents have not yet killed any female captives. As I mentioned just a moment ago, two Italian aid workers were kidnapped but they were subsequently released, although in that case, even though Italy, like Britain, has troops in Iraq, there were reports, unconfirmed reports but many reports nonetheless, that the government of Italy had paid about a million euros to secure their release.

Now, Britain, like the United States, is much firmer in its refusal to negotiate with hostage takers. Remember the very sad story of the British engineer Kenneth Bigley, who was kidnapped, along with two Americans several weeks back in Baghdad; after several tearful pleas for his life, not unlike the recent plea that Margaret Hassan made that was broadcast on al-Jazeera Television tonight, Mr. Bigley was beheaded by his captors. So history here is a mixed bag. And certainly I think she at t his point remains in very grave danger.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Hassan’s CARE International aid agency pulled out workers and suspended operations in Iraq totally. Has Iraq been gradually emptied of people like Margaret Hassan?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Most certainly Ray. The NGO community which has small has shrunk to almost nothing. That’s the great tragedy here because Iraq’s needs are so great. The work that needs to be done in providing clean water and sanitation and medical care and education is so great, much greater than the Iraqi government even with the aid of the United States can provide. And, as we know, there is only a very skeletal United Nations presence there.

This is a classic case where international aid organizations really can provide very meaningful assistance but the security situation evidenced by this latest kidnapping, the latest in a string of attacks and acts of intimidation against the NGO community really has sent many of these workers fleeing out of the country. It’s just too dangerous for them to operate. If anything now, there’s no more than a handful of aid workers that are still left in Baghdad today.

RAY SUAREZ: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, good to talk to you.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure, Ray.