LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
A key government spokesman was kidnapped late last month in Baghdad by members of the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The spokesman's family and the government thought he would surely be killed. He was not - instead, he was released this past Monday.
Later, he spoke to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about his ordeal.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tahsin al-Sheikhly seems slightly distracted. He sits down in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel in the green zone amid white-suited waiters and fountains. But his mind is clearly focused on less salubrious surroundings.
Mr. TAHSIN AL-SHEIKHLY (Government Spokesman, Iraq): (Unintelligible) I was -all of it was hard. All of it was hard.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheikhly had been expecting something to happen from the moment the government launched its offensive in Basra. He was the perfect target. Not only was he a Sunni living in one of Baghdad's most volatile Shiite neighborhoods, the former university professor was the public face of the Baghdad security plan.
As the civilian spokesman for Iraq's security forces, he is a well-known figure. Still, he had lived in the neighborhood of el-Amin for most of his life.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: (Unintelligible) the people, also the peoples know me very well. I live there more than 50 years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a Thursday afternoon at 1:00, though, the Shiite militiamen came for him, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs and other weapons.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: Around 40 of them. They came from two directions to my house shooting.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: With his two sons and three guards he tried to fight them off, then his house caught fire. His aging mother, his three-month-old grandson, his daughters and his daughters-in-law were inside. Sheikhly says his mother went outside to face the gunmen.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: She believed at that time that if she appears in front of them maybe they will respect her age. Maybe they will stop or something like that. But they captured her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They released her only after Sheikhly surrendered. The gunmen took Sheikhly to a Shiite mosque in his neighborhood. None of them had had their faces covered, and then he realized that he knew them.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: For me it was obviously clear that they would kill me because they didn't cover their faces, and they are from the same neighborhood that I live. I know most of them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Over the next few days he was moved from house to house. They treated him well.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: They were very polite with me. They tell me - they tried to be generous with me, they tried to make me comfortable.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As the days passed he began to look at his surroundings. He sounds surprised as he describes their grinding poverty.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: Most of the houses I saw is very, very, very simple houses and very, very, very poor. They haven't an ashtray, they haven't a cable, they are drinking not clean water.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that is when he said it hit him. The spokesman for Baghdad's high-profile security plan began to see things in a different light.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: When you are in such kind of situation you have to think in many things - all your life, the future of your family, the future of your country. You know, our strategy looking always for security, not for peace. We need the social peace more than security.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says people need the government to give them education, jobs and services.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: We need to live with our society. They have nothing to do, they have no future, they have no life also. They feel they are not secure. They haven't hopes also life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last Monday, Sheikhly was released after Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down. The impact of the government offensive is still being hotly debated. Critics say government forces did not do as well as expected, while the Mahdi Army showed its strength and discipline. Sheikhly says he knows his kidnapping was meant to show how impotent the government is. But he admits that even he won't order the police to go after the militiamen who took him, though who and where they are.
Mr. SHEIKHLY: Yes. I had 115 hours, hard hours, in my life, but, you know, I still have my house in their neighbor. I know them very well and they have a family. I have to keep them, I have to protect them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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