New hostages known for generosity

A U.S. soldier stands guard outside the house from which gunmen abducted the two Americans and a Briton.
A U.S. soldier stands guard outside the house from which gunmen abducted the two Americans and a Briton.Hussein Malla / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Almost every morning, the whir of the power generator sitting outside house No. 36 broke the quiet of the neat, tree-lined street, bringing air conditioners and refrigerators on the block back to life. On Thursday, the generator stood silent.

The two Americans and a Briton who lived in the two-story tan house in Baghdad’s upscale al-Mansour neighborhood had been snatched by a gang of unknown assailants.

Neighbors knew little about the men, saying they mostly kept to themselves. But in a city plagued by frequent power outages, they were well known for a major act of generosity: letting their neighbors share the generator for free.

More than a dozen homes took up the offer.

“I heard they are kind people,” said Abdul Jabbar Kadhim, 65. “This summer, the heat is unbearable, and they are giving us electricity without anything in return.”

Kadhim’s wife, Khawla Khalil, said she asked the men’s guard whether they could pay for the electricity. “He said that in exchange for the electricity they want us to just pray for them,” she recalled.

Kept to themselves
Some neighbors asked the reporters who descended on the street after the kidnapping what the men — Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong of the United States and a Briton whose identity had not been released — did for a living. They were employed by Gulf Services Co., a Middle East-based construction company, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.

“If I see them now, I won’t even recognize them,” Khalil said. “We never saw them at their garden or at the door. The guard would just turn on the generator.”

Abeer Ahmed, who lives next door to No. 36, said the three men had a steady routine: They left for work about 6 a.m. and drove home about 5 p.m. They rarely went out in the evenings and did not receive many visitors.

“We would just say, ‘Hi.’ They were kind and minded their own business,” she said.

U.S. soldiers keep watch
Before dawn Thursday, Ahmed said she was awakened by the hot air hanging over her bedroom and realized that the generator had not been switched on. She peered out her window.

The street, which has no official name, was swathed in darkness. “I heard noises. It sounded like a man was dragging another, who was resisting,” she said.

A neighbor’s son, who identified himself only as Majid, said he went to the foreigners’ house to check on the generator. He saw the silhouettes of four or five men, one of whom was dragging another by the collar.

Ahmed heard No. 36’s black iron gate open and saw the headlights of their car as it drove away. The house’s front door was left open, she said.

There were no gunshots. No cries for help. No explanation.

Residents said they called police, who arrived at least half an hour later, went into the house, asked some questions and left.

Later, U.S. soldiers arrived. Two Humvees took up positions at each end of the block, while a third parked outside the house. The troops questioned some neighbors and looked around.

The street, where residents say Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Christians live side by side, had been mostly quiet, residents said. A young boy was kidnapped for ransom from a nearby school, but he was later released, they said.

Anxious neighbors traded rumors about what had happened to the foreigners.

“We’re afraid,” Ahmed said. “I’ll be more careful when it comes to my children and will be scared to go out a lot.”

Fingering his prayer beads, Kadhim wondered who could be responsible. “If they were criminals who did it for ransom, then it’s wrong,” he said. “If it’s about politics ...” he let the words linger “... I don’t know.”

Kadhim complained that Iraqi crime victims did not receive so much attention.

“The world was turned upside down because these three were kidnapped,” he said. “Every day a hundred Iraqis are killed.”

Still, he said he would pray for the men.

By evening, the front door of No. 36 was closed. A metal lock dangled from the red iron bars caging the silent generator.