BAGHDAD, IRAQ, AUG. 30 -- Throughout the past weeks of uncertainty for the 500 Americans in Iraq's capital, Bob Vinton emerged, in the words of one close friend, as "the primary advocate of how safe and sane everything here was."
Vinton, the resident business manager for Johnson Controls International of San Francisco, seemingly was the highest-profile American "guest" of Baghdad, talking enthusiastically to American newspapers and television, and agreeing readily to be identified by name. The world, he told the media, had little reason to fear for the fate of foreigners at the hands of the "wonderful Iraqi people."
"People have to be reassured, and I honestly believe we are all safe here," he said.
During a drive through Baghdad's city streets Monday night, Vinton told a reporter, "When I think about the situation we're all in, I just remember the words of the astronaut Fred Haise when he was making his way back to Earth. He said, 'Don't panic early.' And that's what we can't do."
The following morning, Bob Vinton disappeared without a trace.
News of the disappearance of more Americans in Baghdad came as a grim counterpoint to Tuesday night's announcement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that all foreign women and children were free to leave Iraq after nearly a month of what he called "forced hospitality."
Diplomatic sources confirmed Wednesday that Vinton is among at least nine Americans believed to have been taken into Iraqi custody within the last two days.
Several foreigners in Iraq speculated that the most recent detentions may have been the result of "crossed signals" within the Iraqi government, which could have been planning the moves before the president's announcement.
"What has happened this week was what everyone heard would happen last week," one informed Westerner said. "Otherwise, it doesn't make political sense."
But for many in the American community in Baghdad, the news of Vinton's disappearance had nothing to do with the politics of international confrontation. To them, they said, the loss was personal and deep.
Several friends stressed that they were certain Vinton had not made a dash for the Iraqi border or gone underground, because it would be a total contradiction of the role he came to play in the American community here.
Vinton's friends last saw him when they dropped him off at his home Tuesday morning after a shopping trip. They watched an Iraqi security officer enter Vinton's house behind him.
The unidentified driver of the car told Cable News Network Wednesday: "It was only after I was pulling away that I noticed a security car behind mine. He did not stop us. He did not give us a hard time. One of the gentlemen followed Bob into the house."
The friend said he went home and called Vinton.
"Bob told me that everything was okay, that he had gotten someone who speaks Arabic to talk to these gentlemen," the friend said. "The question at that time was, was he a legal resident of the house he was going into? He assured me that everything was aboveboard and he was quite safe and all right.
"That's the last thing we've heard or seen of him, and I checked around with everybody. Bob has been taken."
Asked whether the disappearance has sent shivers through the American community, the friend said he and other Americans still feel welcome and they continue to move freely around Baghdad.
"This is just an odd situation where they've decided to pick up a couple of Americans, I guess," he said.
During the drive through Baghdad Monday, Vinton said several times how much he has come to love Iraq in the 10 months since he arrived here to open a new line of control systems for commerical and petrochemical-processing facilities.
Asked why he was not afraid to assume such a visible role during a time of crisis in a city where the security police have the reputation for being among the world's most efficient, Vinton said, smiling, "I can't think about it."
Vinton said he did not agree with Saddam's description of foreigners in Iraq as guests. "Yeah, we're hostages, but it's kind of a unique situation," he said as he drove through the blistering evening heat. "They've left us alone.
"I feel safe. Why? Because they need us for their foreign policy. But I'm an American, there's an embargo, and I want to leave.
"And, really, you never know when the rules are going to change around here."