U.S. hostage Jill Carroll's unexpected release in Baghdad on Thursday was a welcome departure from the usual round of bloody bad news coming out of Iraq these days. But the circumstances of her release can hardly be divorced from the sectarian strife and political jockeying that is currently gripping the country. It didn't seem to be an accident, after all, that Carroll, looking hale and well, was turned over to the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group, whose secretary general, Tariq al-Hashimi, greeted the freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor with gifts, including a plaque with the party's logo on it, and a boxed copy of the Koran. "What you have received today from the Iraqi Islamic Party is exactly the teachings of the Koran," said Hashimi.
In the past, al-Hashimi's group has claimed to speak for the Sunni insurgency and it still has ties to myriad groups, so his photo op with Carroll, 28, was somewhat predictable. Sunni groups are in a political knife-fight with the dominant Shi'ite groups, who have claimed that only they can provide security and, as a result, must retain control of the ministries of Interior and Defense. Al-Hashimi's public presentation of Carroll, who was kidnapped Jan. 7 in western Baghdad, seemed to be his way of saying that while Sunnis may have taken her, they were also the ones who got her freed.
"I was treated very well," Carroll said in an immediate interview for the party's Baghdad television station. "They never hit me; they never even threatened to hit me. I'm just happy to be free, and I want to be with my family." Carroll's interpreter, Allan Enwiyah, was killed during her kidnapping.
In retrospect, the excruciatingly long periods of silence from Carroll's kidnappers may have been a positive sign. "It's been my experience that when you don't hear from them for a couple of months, they get released," said a former hostage negotiator who has worked in Iraq. He said missing the first deadline was a actually a good sign because "there does seem to be a trend that if you get held for a few months, either they get tired of holding you or work out a deal through the Iraqis." He mentioned that all of the journalists who had been held for long stretches of timewhich includes Giuliana Sgrena, Florence Aubenas, George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were released after an initial deadline had passed, and they had all been held by Sunni groups.
On Jan. 17, Carroll's kidnappers, the Vengeance Brigade, a previously unknown group, released a tape of Carroll and made their first demand that female Iraqi prisoners be released or they would kill their captive by Jan. 20. On Jan. 26, the U.S. military released five women, but said it was a planned release and was unrelated to Carroll's plight. Four days later, another wrenching tape of Carroll appeared, in which she was weeping and wearing the Islamic headdress called a hijab. She called for the release of women prisoners.
On Feb. 9, a third video was released to a small Kuwaiti TV station. In a steady voice, Carroll said, "Please just do whatever they want, give them whatever they want as quickly as possible. There is a very short time. Please do it fast. That's all." After that, nothing was heard until today's good news.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003. But the thousands of Iraqis who have been kidnapped, usually for ransom, by bandits and gangs, dwarf that number. After news of her release filled the airwaves, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, Richard Bergenheim, called for the release of all hostages in Iraq. "We hope this tide of opposition to criminal behavior will lead to the release of all other hostages as well," he said. "The Christian Science Monitor will not let these people be forgotten. The people of Iraq, and those risking their lives to help them, have a right to live in safety."
Indeed, on the same day that Carroll was enjoying her newly won freedom, CNN reported that 40 more Iraqis were kidnapped. And judging by recent grim events, their prospects for a happy ending like Carroll's aren't very good.