Three haggard Romanian journalists appeared on al-Jazeera television April 22, in handcuffs and with guns pointed at their heads, to beg for their lives. They would be killed if Romania did not immediately withdraw its 860 troops from Iraq, their captors announced to the world.
To drive the message home, Muhammad Munaf, the Iraqi American guide for the Romanians, was also shown on al-Jazeera flanked by two armed hostage-takers. Munaf appealed directly to President Bush to meet the political demands of the patriots of the "Muadh ibn Jabal Brigade," as the captors styled themselves for the Arab satellite network.
Another horrifying example of the lengths to which Iraq's "insurgents" will go to free themselves from the oppression of foreign occupation appeared to be unfolding. But Munaf and his accomplices are believed to have staged the kidnappings for profit, not for any nationalist cause.
There is a happy ending to this particular story: The Romanian government, which rejected any troop withdrawals, managed to win the journalists' freedom a month after their suffering was exploited on al-Jazeera. With the help of Iraq's besieged authorities, Bucharest has also unraveled many details of the kidnapping plot.
That investigation in turn contributed to the freeing Sunday of French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi translator, Hussein Hanoun Saadi. They and the Romanians were held on a "hostage farm" north of Baghdad by one of the local networks that traffic in foreign and Iraqi hostages. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin publicly thanked Romania on Tuesday for its help.
Criminality became ingrained in Iraqi society during the long and brutal rule of Saddam Hussein, and it did not disappear with the U.S. invasion. Many of those who finance or commit the bombings and other atrocities that flash nightly on American television screens, where the violence is interpreted uniformly as a political phenomenon, fight to be able to return to crime-as-usual in Iraq.
The Romanian case also casts new light on the strong connections that united the Iraqi dictator -- and other Arab leaders -- with the intelligence services and political establishments of the Soviet bloc for three decades. As they made cause against the United States together, they also made money together.
The U.N. oil-for-food scandal is in many ways only a small strand in the vast web of international corruption and violence spun around the Middle East's oil riches. As the trial of Hussein is likely to show in great detail, his Baathist regime was an organized criminal enterprise that attained a scope and brutality rarely matched in human history. And those who worked with him, from East or West, were rewarded for their help.
In this he was not different from Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu or that dictator's corrupt successors. The election last December of a democratic government headed by President Traian Basescu has finally opened the files of the Romanian Intelligence Service on its cooperation with terrorists -- including Carlos the Jackal, Palestinian groups and Islamic fundamentalists -- and the Arab middlemen who made fortunes out of facilitating such contacts.
One of the most important facilitators was Syrian businessman Omar Hayssam, whose family connections with Syrian intelligence and the Baathist regime in Damascus are detailed in the Romanian files, the Paris daily Le Monde reported this week. Authorities in Bucharest have identified Hayssam as the mastermind and financier of the plot in which Muhammad Munaf lured the Romanian journalists to their capture in Baghdad on March 28.
The Romanians have denied that they paid any ransom, as has the French government in the Aubenas case. Those assertions were greeted with much skepticism in the European media. But the key to the Romanians' release may actually lie elsewhere. Hayssam was arrested in Bucharest on April 5 on (shades of Al Capone) tax evasion and other charges.
Munaf, his brother and a Syrian named Mahmoud Khaled Omar were ringleaders of the group of professional kidnappers under contract to Hayssam. As is often the case, after their capture the Romanian journalists went into a hostage gulag run by several criminal organizations.
Sordid details of thugs and kidnappers such as these cannot compete with the romantic images of Iraqi "insurgents" taking desperate measures in desperate times, so don't expect to see Hayssam's story on the evening news here or on al-Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts.
But you may want to remember that the next car bombing or beheading that you see in living color may have been brought to you by a shadowy Iraqi or Syrian Baathist living in Damascus or in Europe who has put out good money to bad people to preserve his team's right to plunder. The case of Romania's hostages has usefully put the spotlight on the reinforcing evils of corruption and tyranny.
Apologies to economist Fred Bergsten, whose name I misspelled in my June 9 column.