BAGHDAD, Iraq – Kidnappers on Tuesday grabbed the Iraq director of CARE International, a humanitarian group dedicated to poverty relief that’s operated in Iraq since 1991.

Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE’s Iraq office, stopped her car on the way to work Tuesday morning. The kidnappers reportedly called her name and told her they needed to speak to her about business matters. She walked over, and they took her.

The abduction of one of the country’s leading humanitarian workers occurred in the midst of evacuations by journalists, humanitarian workers, even security personnel, who said the threats were increasing.

Hassan has lived here for more than 25 years, spending much of that time as a humanitarian worker. Although born in Britain, Hassan is an Iraqi national. She also had Irish citizenship, Iraqi government officials said.

The sharp uptick in violence began last week, coinciding with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Kidnappings, car bombings, ambushes, church attacks and mortar fire are all part of insurgents’ plans to disrupt security in Iraq before the U.S. elections in November and Iraqi parliamentary elections scheduled for January, military officials have said.

Many foreigners working here said the room for any security error was decreasing by the day.

Hassan, who’s in her mid-60s, was briefly shown on a videotape delivered to the al Jazeera satellite TV network, but the tape didn’t make clear who’d kidnapped her or what the kidnappers wanted.

On the tape, Hassan was seated alone on a couch. She was speaking, although the tape shown didn’t play any audio. No one else appeared on the tape, and Hassan had no visible injuries. The video showed copies of her identification, credit cards and CARE business cards. She appeared distressed.

“As of now, we are unaware of the motives for the abduction,” said a statement from CARE International that was released in London, where the group is based. “As far as we know, Margaret is unharmed.”

CARE representatives wouldn’t say whether Hassan had any security guards. She was highly aware of how the eroding security situation was affecting the nation, in particular the effort to rebuild.

In May 2003 she told Knight Ridder: “The whole place will explode if we don’t have security. … It’s a very, very serious situation, and I can’t see anything moving forward until this is right.”

In November, CARE Australia received death threats, prompting the group to leave at Hassan’s suggestion, CARE’s chief executive officer, Robert Glasser, told the newspaper The Australian.

“I spoke to our Iraq country director, Margaret Hassan, and she has grave fears for the safety of our staff – it is simply too dangerous for our people to stay,” Glasser told the newspaper.

Part of the Iraqi police’s kidnapping unit will help with the investigation, said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. The British Embassy here also is investigating, he said.

Some Iraqi police officers were training for the new kidnapping unit when Hassan was taken, Kadhim said. They were learning how to handle such situations, he said.

A barrage of enemy mortar shells killed at least four Iraqi national guardsmen and wounded 80 on Tuesday as they lined up for training at a camp about 25 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. military officials said.

Insurgents fired up to six rounds in the fatal attack on the Tarmiyah national guard base just as recruits assembled for morning formation, a senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official said.

The official, who didn’t want his name published for fear of retaliation, said the attack appeared to be revenge for recent arrests and weapons confiscations in the area.

“They are targeting the national guard and the police because they are executing operations that suffocate the resistance,” the official said. “They don’t want the government or the security systems to work. They want to obstruct us so they can create chaos in this country.”

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