26 July 2004
The pictures are grainy, the voices sometimes unclear. But when Kim Sun-il shrieks "Don't kill me" over and over again, his fear is palpable. As the heads of Iraq's kidnap victims are sawn off, Koranic recitations - usually by a well-known Saudi imam - are played on the soundtrack. At the beheading of an American, the murderer ritually wipes his bloody knife twice on the shirt of his victim, just as Saudi officials clean their blades after public executions in the kingdom. Terror by video is now a well-established part of the Iraq war.
The latest shows an Egyptian diplomat, Mohamed Mamdouh Qutb, who was kidnapped as he left evening prayers at a Baghdad mosque last Friday. On the video, he sits before hooded gunmen who say Egypt must not send soldiers to Iraq. Egypt has already stated it has no intention of doing so. It is, according to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, "a sensitive matter". Mr Qutb's abduction was probably the result of his own appearance on Arab satellite channels welcoming a freed Egyptian truck driver four days before his disappearance.
The "resistance" or the "terrorists" or the "armed Iraqi fighters" - as US forces now refer to their enemies - began with a set of poorly made videos showing attacks on American troops in Iraq. Roadside bombs would be filmed from a passing car as they exploded beside US convoys. Guerrillas could be seen firing mortars at American bases outside Fallujah. But once the kidnappings began, the videos moved into a macabre new world.
More than 60 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq this year; most have been freed but many were videotaped in captivity while their kidnappers read their demands. Angelo de la Cruz's wasted face provoked street demonstrations in Manila and the early withdrawal of the small Filipino contingent.
But the scenario has become grimly familiar. The potential victim kneels in front of three hooded men holding Kalashnikov rifles. Sometimes he pleads for his life. Sometimes he is silent, apparently unaware of whether he is to be murdered or spared.
The viewer, however, will notice something quite terrible. When the hostage is to be beheaded, the gunmen behind him are wearing gloves. They do not intend to stain their hands with an infidel's blood.
There is a reading of his death sentence and then - inevitably - he is pulled to the right and one man bends over to saw through his throat. The latest victim was Bulgarian. Another hostage of the same nationality is threatened with the same fate later this week.
All sides in Iraq have joined the video war. The first day of Saddam Hussein's trial was videotaped and handed to journalists by US military censors who initially tried to delete the soundtrack - something they succeeded in doing with the 11 Baathists whose arraignment followed shortly afterwards. There has even been an odd tape in which gunmen calling themselves "the Iraqi resistance" threaten the life of the al-Qa'ida member Abu Musab al-Zarqawi unless he leaves Iraq. Zarqawi is blamed by the Americans and by Iraq's new American-appointed Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, for suicide bombings in the country. But many Iraqis suspected the tape was made by the Iraqi authorities - and were convinced this was the case when the "resistance" men referred respectfully not to the "occupation forces" in Iraq but to the "coalition forces", the official name which the Western armies in Iraq have adopted. This video is known as the "Allawi tape".
Videos, usually delivered to one of two Arabic-language television channels - al-Jazeera or al-Arabia - are rarely shown in full. But in an outrageous spin-off, websites - especially one that appears to be in California - are now posting the full and gory contents. One American website has posted the beheading of the American Nicholas Berg and the South Korean hostage in full and bloody detail. "Kim Sun-il Beheading Video Short Version, Long Version" the website offers. The "short version" shows a man severing the hostage's neck. The long version includes his screaming appeal for mercy - which lasts for at least two minutes and is followed by his slaughter. On the same screen and at the same time, there are advertisements for "Porn" and "Horse Girls." The Iraqi police have watched all the tapes and believe they follow a Saudi routine of beheading. In many cases, the captors speak with Saudi or Yemeni accents. But a video produced last week of eight foreign truck drivers - including Kenyans, Indians and an Egyptian - showed gunmen speaking in Iraqi accents. They demanded the companies employing the drivers end their contracts in Iraq - just as a Saudi company pulled out after another Egyptian employee was taken captive. Clearly, the "resistance" is trying to starve the Americans of foreign workers and force US troops back on to the dangerous highways to drive the supply convoys traversing Iraq each day.
And where does the inspiration for all these ghoulish videos come from? More than six months ago, a video went on sale in the insurgents' capital of Fallujah, allegedly showing the throat-cutting of an American soldier. In fact, the tape showed a Russian soldier being led into a room by armed men in Chechnya. He is forced to lie down - apparently unaware of his fate - and at first tries to cope with the pain as a man takes a knife to his throat. His head is then cut off. It seems certain that this tape was intended as a training manual for Iraq's new executioners.