Sheikh Hisham Dulaimi reeks of cigars and caffeine. He has three wives, twelve children and his physique suggests that he could be a subscriber to the Charles Atlas body building course. Of course, right now, the sheikh’s solid, welded hulk is a compulsory stop for any reporter chasing the moods, fancies and messages of kidnappers of the three Indian drivers from two weeks back.
He’s discovering and enjoying the glories of television appearances and spinning yarns on live studio shows. His latest bout of posturing: announcing his withdrawal from the mediation process between the Kuwaiti trucking company and the kidnappers, citing the “negative posture” of the Kuwaiti management, and announcing his willingness to re-enter the process, 24 hours later, if the “kidnappers” sent him a message to step back in and if the Kuwaiti company sent a representative to Baghdad to thrash things out with him (read: it would help if he was flying in with some dollars. Cheques don’t travel in Baghdad).
Says Sheikh Dulaimi, “Till now the Kuwaiti company hasn’t sent anybody to Baghdad to talk with us. It can have very negative consequences.” The Sheikh is disappointed that for a very long time the Kuwaiti company didn’t even request him on television to step in the process and “solve the story.” The last phrase is something Dulaimi reels off with abundance. Solve the Story. It has some kind of cadence for him. A single statistic flows with regularity too. “250 women and children died in Falluja. The kidnappers would like compensation for those families. At least the Kuwaiti company should come and do something for Falluja. Talk to the people there about their problems. If the Kuwaiti people are worried about their security I guarantee them that.”
The Sheikh himself, of course, is flanked by machine gun-toting 20-year-olds who want to chat up Indians about Amitabh Bachchan. A day before four churches had been bombed in Baghdad killing 11 people.
The Sheikh has been in television’s coveted zip code zone before, when he helped in the release of Japanese and Russian hostages in Falluja three months back and claims to be the head of 16,500 tribal sheikhs in Iraq. His Dulaimi family is ensconced far and wide in Iraqi social crevices and while he claims not knowing who the kidnappers are or where they are based, he commits a moment of Bollywood-induced indiscretion.
Asked who his favourite heroine was in Hindi films, Sheikh Dulaimi thumps his thighs and takes Asha Parekh’s name. Prodded further on what his reaction would be if the legendary Asha Parekh herself called him and requested his full cooperation for the release of the hostages, Dulaimi says, “The hostages would be released today itself. If she calls me herself that’s what will happen.”
Of course, realising the implications (Dulaimi has been repeatedly claiming that he doesn’t know who the kidnappers are or where they are based) of what he had just said Dulaimi backtracks a minute down the line. He adds, “I mean her saying something will have an affect on the kidnappers also. Not me alone. Also if other Indian actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra go on television and request not only me but the kidnappers and other Iraqis to solve the story then the drivers should be released.”
Understandably, the Indian embassy in Baghdad has gone pretty much underground. Ambassador B.B. Tyagi is involved in some unknown negotiations with some unknown people helped by some unknown people. What is however, known is that there have been regular meetings with Egyptian diplomats and channels of communication between Sheikh Dulaimi and the Indian embassy have been kept burning through some mutual friends. The Indians, however, are reluctant to deal with a technicolor personality like the Sheikh directly. For god knows what he might say on television. It could result in singeing many diplomatic careers.
Elsewhere, an Islamist website showed a videotape of the killing of a Turkish truck driver Murat Yuce in Iraq by a group linked to al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The tape shows a masked man shooting the hostage while he is seated in a chair. When he falls to the ground, the gunman shoots him twice more with a pistol while shouting “God is greatest”. Earlier Murat Yuce was asked to read a statement warning Turks not to work with US forces.
The Zarqawi gang, of course, with sinister aplomb, plays local vigilante with consumate skill. Zarqawi himself said last Sunday that his gang had freed an 11-year-old child kidnapped by an Iraqi criminal gang headed by a police officer. The militants said they went to the capital, freed the child and captured those guarding him. One of the militants said the group was going to ensure “safety and stability” in Iraq’s town and strike those who undermined the people’s security.
The criminals involved in the kidnapping were to be handed over to the “real” Iraqi police once they were established in Samarra, a city in Iraq. Of course, Zarqawi’s compassion doesn’t extend to drivers from the sub-continent. His gang executed two Pakistani truck drivers recently.
But consolation can be taken from the fact that the seven hostages (including the three Indians) are not in Zarqawi’s hands who himself has a 25 million dollar bounty on his head, set by the US. Also, from the fact that the episode has moved some Sunni clerics enough to issue statements in favour of the release of the drivers. Says one of them, Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Gaffar, Imam at the imposing Umm-al-Maarik (Mother of all battles) mosque in Baghdad, “We are Muslim. Allah doesn’t allow kidnapping acts like this and we have to take a stand against them. I speak about this every Friday. I ask the kidnappers to release them. If they are Muslim and God fearing they should do so.”
The Imam made similar appeals for the Pakistani drivers, urged by diplomats from Pakistan eager to get some moral authority on their side, but to no avail.
The Iraqi interior ministry itself, in perpetual scrimmage with criminals, terrorists and religious extremists, is quite clueless about the present kidnapping case. Says Dr Sabah Kathem, director and advisor at the ministry, “We feel sorry for the families of the drivers. Besides, the exposure of the case with the media has increased the price of the kidnappers.”
For Dulaimi himself, it has got lots of international television recall. But for the families of the drivers, tons of anxiety.
(The writer is editor of Cobrapost.com)