Italy hasn’t quite come to grips with the kidnapping of two humanitarian aid workers in broad daylight in the heart of Baghdad on Tuesday, not because they were just innocent bystanders, but because they were women.
This is the first time women have been specifically targeted in Iraq and Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi is under severe pressure to ensure their safe return, especially after the slaying of an Italian journalist by Iraqi hostage-takers last month.
Meantime, the focus on a well-established non-governmental agency has sent chills throughout the entire NGO network in Iraq.
In the wake of the outpouring of outrage and dismay since the news of their kidnapping broke, the most disturbing facet may be the conclusive proof that no one is safe in Iraq.
Any foreigner fair game
The two 29-year-olds, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, are both experienced aid workers. Torretta has worked in the Baghdad office of their NGO, “A Bridge for Baghdad,” since 1994.
The organization set up shop in the Iraqi capital after the 1991 war and has been primarily active in assisting the ailing school system.
The agency stuck it out through all the embargo years between the two wars and both Pari and Torretta were determined to stay on despite the worsening security situation.
They didn’t feel threatened because they were an established presence whose only interest was helping the Iraqi people. They also made no bones about their anti-war views.
Pari even referred to the Italian troops, which the Italian government describes as “peacekeeping forces," as “occupying forces” in a recent interview.
But apparently that no longer matters in the criminal anarchy of present-day Iraq.
Any foreigner is fair game and the gender barrier was dispatched in short order by the dozen or more armed men who pulled up in front of the NGO’s office in three SUV’s, and came out 15 minutes later with Pari and Torretta, plus an Iraqi man and an Iraqi woman pulled screaming into the street by her veil.
The outcry has been strong in Italy. Prime Minister Berlusconi's government, sharply criticized for not securing the release of an Italian journalist last month -- called for national unity in the face of what at least one cabinet minister, Roberto Calderoli, called a "war against the West."
Berlusconi took the unprecedented step of asking center-left opposition party leaders to join him an emergency meeting to respond to the crisis.
Such an invitation would have been inconceivable in Italy before this kidnapping, the equivalent of President Bush inviting Sen. John Kerry to discuss strategy in the face of an especially violent attack in Iraq.
Pope John Paul II spoke out as well. In his weekly audience for the general public Wednesday, he led a prayer for the hostages' release and made a specific appeal that they be treated “with respect.”
A Vatican newspaper headline read, "Women of Peace are Hostages of War."
Several Islamic leaders in Italy’s Muslim community also made appeals for their freedom.
Aid workers for a French humanitarian group said on Wednesday they were considering pulling out of Iraq after their Italian colleagues were kidnapped. Fearing that it, too, may become a target, the group asked not to be identified.
Latest kidnapping may push hand
The Iraqi war has been unpopular with most Italians since the very beginning in March 2003. Most Italians think their troops shouldn’t be there, but paradoxically they say it would be wrong to leave while the violence is still raging.
This conflicting emotion might resolve itself drastically if these two women are killed like Italian freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni was in August.
The fear that the aid workers might meet the same end as Baldoni was reflected in the media coverage.
"This is not just the breaking of a taboo but the confirmation of a definitive change in strategy [by Iraqi militants]," the Rome daily Il Messaggero said.
Berlusconi insists that the one thing he will not negotiate is the presence of the troops, but if this kidnapping ends badly he may not have a choice.