Six Egyptian engineers working for the mobile telephone company that provides service to central Iraq have been abducted in the past several days, prompting a company official to warn that the phone network would shut down if its remaining foreign workers fled the country in fear.
Gunmen grabbed two construction engineers late Thursday night from a Baghdad office of Iraqna, a subsidiary of the Egyptian telecommunications giant Orascom Telecom Holding, one of three companies licensed to operate a mobile phone network in Iraq. Four other engineers working for Iraqna were kidnapped Wednesday, along with four Iraqis, according to the company.
"These engineers are the core of the company," said Shamel Hanafi, a senior manager for Iraqna who is serving as the company's top executive in Iraq while its chief executive is on leave in Egypt. "This is a very serious issue. If the situation remains, the network will shut down. It will affect the resistance. It will affect everybody."
Kidnappings have become a growing problem for Iraq's interim government ahead of national elections planned for the beginning of next year. There have been hundreds of kidnappings in recent months, targeting foreigners or Iraqis who work for the U.S. military or in support of the government.
The crisis has escalated in the past few weeks as kidnappers turn to what had been considered relatively safe areas of Baghdad -- the affluent Mansour and Harthiya districts, where many foreign firms have set up shop on quiet residential streets lined with palm trees. On Sept. 16, two Americans and a Briton were grabbed by gunmen in a bold raid on their Mansour residence. The Americans, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were beheaded by their captors this week.
The fate of the British man, Kenneth Bigley, remained unknown Friday night. On Wednesday, his kidnappers, the Monotheism and Jihad group, led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, released a video in which Bigley pleaded with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene and save his life. His captors have demanded that U.S. authorities release any Iraqi women in their custody.
The capture of the three men closely followed two other highly publicized kidnappings of foreigners. Two Italian aid workers, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, were abducted from their Baghdad residence on Sept. 7, and two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, were kidnapped Aug. 19 on a road just south of Baghdad. The fates of all four remain unknown.
Iraqi security forces said many of the kidnappers appeared to be common criminals who target foreigners and then sell their captives to militant or insurgent groups.
The kidnappings of Iraqna's engineers is the latest setback for a company struggling to drum up business during a continuing insurgency in which any element of Iraq's infrastructure is considered a target.
On Friday, Hanafi pleaded for the engineers to be released. "We are not related to Israel or any government," he said. "We are here to serve the Iraqi people."
Hanafi said his 24 remaining Egyptian engineers, whose expertise is critical to keeping the network operating, want to leave Baghdad immediately.
"If they leave, the network will shut down," Hanafi said.
That would dramatically affect the Baghdad government's ability to maintain economic stability and contain the violence arising from the insurgency.
Iraqna has about 200,000 subscribers in the capital and the rest of central Iraq. Mobile phones are the primary means of communication for government officials and essential to foreign journalists and contract workers. But the biggest subscriber base, according to the company, consists of average Iraqis, who have quickly incorporated the mobile phone into their daily lives.
The engineers' departure could also intensify the fear of kidnapping that is already deterring Iraqis and foreigners involved in commerce here. Trucking companies from Jordan and Turkey have stopped sending drivers, hampering the flow of goods into the country, which, in turn, has created shortages and driven up prices in local markets. Companies scouting Iraq for business opportunities have given up after weighing the potential for economic opportunity against the threat to employees.
One of the kidnappers' consistent demands -- and one that has frequently been successful -- is that employers of hostages stop doing business in Iraq. In late July, Daoud and Partners, a Jordanian catering and construction company, pledged to stop working in Iraq a day after two of its truck drivers were kidnapped near the Syrian border. The hostages were subsequently freed.
At times, however, kidnappings have reflected no clear agenda. The Islamic Movement for Iraq's Mujaheddin freed a Lebanese hostage last month, citing Lebanon's lack of diplomatic ties with Israel, while a group calling itself God's Wrath killed a Lebanese working for a telecommunications company in Iraq.
The U.S. military has responded to the kidnappings with repeated attacks in the city of Fallujah, which commanders say they believe is the operational base for Zarqawi, whose group asserted responsibility for the beheadings of a South Korean translator, Kim Sun Il, and Nicholas Berg, an American businessman.
[On Saturday, U.S. warplanes, tanks and artillery units attacked Fallujah, killing at least eight people and wounding 15, hospital officials and witnesses told the Associated Press.]
On Friday, U.S. Marines had fired artillery rounds at targets in the city after they saw insurgents getting out of a vehicle with a mounted machine gun.