Kidnapping in Iraq Challenges German Leader to Take a Stand

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

BERLIN, Nov. 29 -- Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor, promised repeatedly on the campaign trail that she would keep her country far away from the political and military minefields of Iraq. Just one week after taking office, however, Germany finds itself being pulled in anyway.

Merkel said Tuesday that her nascent administration would do everything possible to win the freedom of a prominent German archaeologist and her Iraqi driver, held by kidnappers in Iraq who threatened to kill them if Germany does not end its few tangible measures of support for the Iraqi government.

The German government's efforts "are aimed at ensuring the safety of those affected and protecting their lives," Merkel told reporters after an emergency meeting of her cabinet to discuss how to respond to the abduction of Susanne Osthoff, 43, an archaeologist and aid worker. She was last seen Friday in northern Iraq.

Germany has been one of the loudest critics of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder ran two campaigns based largely on his opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq. While Merkel has pledged to repair diplomatic relations with the United States, she and her closest advisers have said the new government won't change the substance of German policy on Iraq.

Germany has trained some Iraqi security forces at bases elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, mainly in the United Arab Emirates, but it has taken pains to avoid sending troops or logistical support to Iraq itself.

As with other European countries opposed to the war, the hands-off approach has not inoculated German citizens from terrorist attacks. Osthoff became the first German to be taken hostage in Iraq when she disappeared sometime Friday in the northwestern part of the country. A videotape showing her bound and blindfolded with her driver was delivered late Monday to the Baghdad bureau of the German television network ARD.

Osthoff's relatives and colleagues said she had been involved in charity work in Iraq since before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. She had worked as an archaeologist in the country since the 1990s. ARD reported that she is a convert to Islam, fluent in Arabic and married to an Arab man. Relatives in Germany told reporters that she had cut or limited her ties with them in recent years.

In October, Osthoff told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper that while living in the northern city of Mosul she had been threatened with kidnapping by a network allied with the Jordanian insurgent leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, and was forced to seek U.S. military protection. German officials said Tuesday that they were still trying to sort out the identity of her kidnappers and weren't certain if they were affiliated with Zarqawi.

Merkel said the German Foreign Ministry had set up a crisis team to deal with the situation but gave few other details.

In a visit to Washington on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had promised that the United States would help to track down Osthoff and her kidnappers. He and Merkel said they would not give in to the kidnappers' demands. "The German government refuses to be blackmailed," Steinmeier said.

Since 2000, Germany has been confronted with other cases in which Islamic extremists have kidnapped German citizens. That year, a German family was held hostage by rebels in the Philippines. In 2003, 16 Germans were taken hostage while on a desert holiday in Algeria.

In both cases, Germany paid ransom to the kidnappers, according to officials from other countries involved in searching for the kidnappers. German officials have publicly denied doing so.

Some German politicians suggested that a similar approach might be necessary to win Osthoff's release. "One can only hope that the kidnappers can be bought off," Gert Weisskirchen, a foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democratic Party in the German Parliament, told the magazine Der Spiegel. Under Germany's coalition government, the Social Democrats control the Foreign Ministry.

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