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Too close to Iraq kidnappers for comfort

By Alphonso Van Marsh

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. Alphonso Van Marsh is following developments in a string of kidnappings in Iraq.

CNN's Alphonso Van Marsh
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Behind the Scenes
Alphonso Van Marsh

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Recently, while investigating a story about hostages kidnapped in Iraq, I got closer to the hostage-takers than I would have liked.

After hours of waiting for an interview at the National League for Tribes and Clans of Iraq headquarters -- a run-down, dilapidated compound in central Baghdad -- a gang of handlers quickly ushered me into a room full of cigarette-smoking, gun-toting tribal leaders dressed to the hilt in white flowing robes and bandoleer-style bullet-belts.

I wasn't nervous, but I was surprised to see so many people in the room where I expected only an interviewee and his assistant.

The 20-foot by 30-foot room was the office of Sheikh Hisham al Dulemi, said to be a go-between for kidnappers and an employer negotiating their release. While he's helped with other negotiations, we understand this is his only role in a hostage negotiation.

The room was filled with overstuffed couches as well as armed men. All the weapons prompted me to rush the setting up of our CNN camera and to thank him for the appointment with every bit of the Arabic I know.

Al Dulemi then showed me a letter he says was written by kidnappers. The letterhead said Islamic Secret Army: Black Banners Division -- and surprisingly it was written in English.

The group has been holding seven non-Iraqi truck drivers hostage for more than a week -- and is threatening to behead them.

The Arabic text that followed in the letter explained why the group had chosen al Dulemi to represent the kidnappers' interests and that they trusted him to negotiate with the drivers' employer, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co.

Al Dulemi portrayed the group as Iraqi nationalists who want the hostages' employer to stop doing business in Iraq -- and to compensate the families of those killed by U.S. attacks in Iraq's restive city of Falluja, west of Baghdad.

But diplomats close to the negotiations say the Black Banners -- like a growing number of hostage-takers in Iraq -- are in it for the money, not their principles.

One diplomat once told me the Black Banner's initial asking price for the release of the Kenyan, Egyptian and Indian truck drivers was $250,000. "That's nothing for seven people," he confided.

Using as much tact and apologies as I could muster, I took the risk of asking al Dulemi about the ransom report. Suddenly his piercing, blue-green eyes narrowed and seemed to burn a hole right through me. Clearly I had insulted him.

"I know nothing about it," he said.

I finished my visit and promptly was on my way.

Hostage-taking is a moneymaking venture in Iraq. And sadly, business here is booming.

From my home base Istanbul, I've reported on kidnapped Turkish truck drivers, delivering Turkish consumer goods to Iraqi markets or U.S. troops.

Sheikh Hisham al Dulemi says he's negotiating on behalf of kidnappers of seven truck drivers in Iraq.

Kidnappers who accuse them of supporting the U.S. occupation of Iraq hold the drivers for a few days threatening to kill them. But more often, the hostage-takers let the drivers go, as long as they promise not to return to Iraq. Their employers also must pay a hefty ransom, according to Turkish news reports.

I have learned here in Iraq that dozens of people from at least a dozen countries have been kidnapped.

The official status of other kidnapped hostages is unclear, such as U.S. Army Spc. Matt Maupin, who was reportedly captured April 9 and later reported killed.

Last week, hostage-takers delivered to Arabic-language television news channel Al-Jazeera a grisly videotape purportedly showing the killing of two Pakistani truck drivers. A senior Pakistani diplomat here tells me he's still waiting for the bodies.

Sources told CNN's Matthew Chance that Egypt shelled out "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to the previously unknown Lions of God Brigades after they kidnapped an Egyptian diplomat in Baghdad. The diplomat was released earlier this month. Egypt denied that any ransom had been paid for his release.

On Sunday, Iraqi authorities disproved a perceived hands-off attitude by Iraqi authorities about dealing with the kidnappings. Iraqi police rescued a Lebanese businessman two days after he was taken at gunpoint on the streets of Baghdad.

Vladimir Damaa's relatives had earlier told Reuters news agency that the kidnappers had asked for a $700,000 ransom. The kidnappers are in jail now.

Aside from profit, there is also a growing sense here that hostage-taking is a perfect venue for revenge. Jordanian businessman Rami al Oueeiss says gunmen kidnapped two of his drivers outside the northern Iraqi city of Mosul more than a week ago.

Al Oueeiss runs an Amman-based logistics and construction company. He says he does work for the U.S. military in Iraq. He also says the men who kidnapped his drivers aren't Iraqis with a religious or political agenda. Al Oueeiss says the kidnappers are thugs who also happen to be business and tribal rivals.

"They have been threatening me for more than a year," Al Oueeiss says. "I've been getting threats daily." He says he'll travel to Baghdad to "get my boys back" and work out a "financial status." I understand that to mean, pay a ransom.

Efforts by journalists to find the truth in this international game of who has kidnapped whom, when and for how much, are easily sidelined. When working such stories, I make dozens of phone calls an hour -- and have even taken to borrowing co-workers' cell phones when sources recognize my telephone number on their caller IDs.

Most sources are helpful and want to funnel inside information my way. Parties trying to influence the negotiations through the news media have outright lied to me. Some diplomats say their nationals are free, when perhaps, they are actually still in captivity.

Companies with kidnapped employees say their top priority is to bring their workers home safe. But one executive I spoke to says a close second priority is preserving business relationships at any cost -- even if that means giving into kidnapper demands and paying their price.

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