Which kidnap victim is more valuable – US or Iraqi?

Sadr City is “turned upside down” in search for three US citizens, but when Iraqis get kidnapped, no one seems to care.

Three Americans abducted in Baghdad photo information
Reports say the US advisers were seized in the area of al-Dura in southern Baghdad [File:Ali Haider/EPA]

Baghdad, Iraq – Helicopters fly over the capital’s Sadr City. The noise is deafening and frightens children.

In recent days Iraqi security forces have focused their search for three US military advisers abducted three weeks ago in this neighbourhood. It’s an area that is fiercely loyal to Shia clerics and is suspicious of the United States.

Deep within the secure international zone, more popularly known as the Green Zone, I asked General Sean MacFarland, the US commander in charge of the coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), about the latest on the operations against the group.

When he spoke about the three US advisers he was blunt. “We are working with the Iraqi authorities to get them back.”

READ MORE: Americans reported missing in Iraq

Certainly the US has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Iraqis to find the men who are said, according to one Iraqi source we spoke to, to be held by one of the larger Shia militias.

But the abducted Americans represent only a small fraction of the people who go missing in Iraq each day.

Accurate figures on kidnappings are impossible to come by as the Iraqi government doesn’t keep crime figures. One member of the Iraqi parliament, though, told Al Jazeera that the number of such incidents has skyrocketed over the past six months and is now in the thousands.

In Sadr City we spoke to Hussein Sarmad. He has witnessed intense activity in his neighbourhood over the past 10 days. He described to us late-night raids, helicopters buzzing over homes and counter-terrorism forces in the streets.

He is angry that when Iraqis are kidnapped from his neighbourhood, no one seems to care.

“It’s funny, all this fuss for three Americans. The security forces are turning our neighbourhood upside down. I doubt that they are even here,” Sarmad said.

It’s a common sentiment among Iraqi families who fall victim to this sort of crime.

The search for those kidnappers doesn’t involve the military. Often, families of the victims get no help from the police or international community and are left to deal with threats from the kidnappers themselves.

Lucrative business

It’s a lucrative business and, be in no doubt, it is a business. Ransom demands can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on how rich the family is.

The Americans kidnapped represent the ultimate prize. Foreigners in Iraq can be useful as political tools to gain concessions. They can also be worth a lot of money.

Iraqi militias, explained

Perhaps, though, the real worth of kidnapping foreigners, particularly military advisers, is that it sends a message from anti-US forces in the country to the US that it cannot operate here with impunity.

Iskander Witwit is an MP in Baghdad. He says the kidnappings are designed to embarrass the government. “Such incidents send a negative message to the international community that Iraq isn’t in control, that we cannot deal with terrorism and criminality.”

Perhaps that is why whenever a foreigner is kidnapped in Iraq it’s a big deal and valuable resources that would otherwise be committed to fighting terrorism and crime are diverted to looking for them.

Good luck if you are Iraqi and you are kidnapped. All the anecdotal evidence would suggest that you won’t get house-to-house searches. You won’t get helicopter patrols. You won’t get intelligence-gathering resources. You, it would seem, are on your own to deal with the kidnappers.

US kidnap victims are simply worth more in this game of grotesque mathematics.