The two Italian aid workers, Simona Toretta and Simona Pari, along with their two Iraqi colleagues have been freed. Journalists on the Italian State television RAI have openly spoken of a ransom payment, and while officially the Government have denied this, various senior figures from both the Government and Opposition have suggested that it was the case.
There’s a palpable sense of relief, all round, that the two young women, who, only days ago, unsubstantiated internet postings declared had been executed, are safe and sound. Now, with the relief, come the questions.
Giallo in Italian is used to describe a crime novel or mystery, and even before the freeing of the hostages it was constantly being used in headlines to describe the story.
This evening, Ali El Roz, editor of the Kuwaiti based newspaper Al Rai Alaam, which broke the news over the weekend that the hostages, according to their sources, were alive and well, spoke to RAI television to give his opinion of what had happened. He described a process where a team of Italians and Iraqi mediators negotiated for the freedom of the hostages. A ransom of $5 million was requested, but in the end $1 million was paid.
Speaking about the payment of a ransom, the deputy co-ordinator of Forza Italia, Fabrizio Cicchitto, said that while he didn’t know for sure whether a ransom payment had been given, that in his opinion a Government could not negotiate on political terms such as the recall of Italian troops, but that any other effort to release the hostages was both right and proper.
On the same commentary, Pino Boungiorno, Deputy Editor of Panorama, a weekly news magazine published by Berlusconi’s Mondadori group, said that, based on his experience in Iraq, a ransom had been paid. According to Buongiorno’s analysis, the kidnapping had been undertaken by a group of military/ex-secret service with possible support from criminal elements. The kidnappers had evidently hoped to sell the hostages to the highest bidder, as it seems is increasingly the case (Loretta Napoleoni has outlined in her book Terror Inc. the process whereby hostages become assets to be sold or traded). The kidnappers misjudged the reaction of both the Arab world,the outrage on behalf of ‘moderate Islam’, and crucially the reaction of the infamous Al Zarqawi,who, it would seem, refused to buy the hostages. This left, again according to Buongiorno, the kidnappers with a dilemma – four hostages that couldn’t be sold on quickly, and at the same time an ever tightening net of intelligence that threatened to capture them. In the end they settled for $1million to finish the crisis.
One can wonder at the details, but the studio was filled with representatives of all political parties and while no confirmation was given, neither was there any strong denial.
Jeremy Scahill and Naomi Klein, writing in the Guardian were close to the mark in their piece on the abduction, where, amongst other hypotheses, they outlined that this may have been the work of Saddam’s ex secret service men.
A further mystery surrounds the actual release. A dramatic, some would say too dramatic, piece of footage was shown by Al Jazeera showing two veiled women, who, when unveiled, revealed themselves to be the two smiling Italian hostages. At the same time, the special envoy of the Italian Red Cross, Maurizio Scelli, took centre stage – strangely, as he had said that he would not be involved in the negotiations after controversy surrounded the Red Cross’s role working with the Italian Government (Scelli, it turns out, is due to be interviewed on Mediaset tomorrow – Berlusconi’s TV network). As pointed out by Emanuele Giordana of Lettera 22, an association of independent journalists, the video seemed staged. A representative of Al Jazeera, when asked whether the film had been filmed by them, or handed over ready-filmed to them, refused to answer, leaving many with the assumption that it was the work of a third party versed in Television.
As if things weren’t murky enough, Oliviero Diliberto, of the Comunisti Italiani, who, as he pointed out, have many links in the Arab world, threw the spotlight onto last week’s foiled terrorist attack on the Italian Embassy in Beirut. In his view this shows new channels between Italy and Syria, without whose help nothing gets foiled in Lebanon. At the same time, co-incidentally, King Abdullah of Jordan is on a state visit to Italy, as is General Musharraf of Pakistan. Does this suggest further wheeling and dealing and realpolitik?
It’s unlikely that this release will give much solace to the families of any hostages known to be held by Al Zarqawi, and at the same time can hardly give much optimism to George W. Bush’s reconstruction efforts. Whether Westerners are kidnapped and murdered by Religious Fanatics, or kidnapped and ransomed off to the highest bidder, the message is the same – Iraq is out of bounds.
The role of a ‘moderate Islam’ in the crisis comes into question as well. Many commentators have emphasised and welcomed the role that public opinion, against the kidnapping, on the part of the Iraqi public and the wider Muslim public, played in the freeing of the hostages. This, if it is true, is to be cautiously welcomed, but it obviously begs the question “where has this moderate voice been in the case of other hostages?” Hostages such as the Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, murdered August 26th. Was it their gender or their long record of work in Iraq that motivated public opinion?
What is certain, here in Italy tonight is that the political truce brought into effect by all parties during the crisis has officially ended. On the television, as I write, the fierce shouting matches that have characterised much of the debate on Iraq have returned, and with it the question of recalling the troops.
So far, little has been heard from the freed hostages, who have arrived safely in Rome, other than that they are both o.k and were treated with respect during their captivity. It will be interesting to hear what these brave and informed women will have to say, and one can be sure of one thing, when they speak the whole country will be listening.