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By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Ten-year-old Iraqi football fan Muntazer picked up his ball one day and walked to his grandparents' house. On the way, he was snatched by kidnappers, who murdered him and poured acid on his body to try to erase evidence of the crime.
Then the thugs extorted $25,000 (15,000 pounds) from his family.
"I managed to get the money. I paid them. They told me they will release my son tomorrow, but they did not," Yusuf al-Moussawi says.
As Iraq emerges from the sectarian carnage set off by the 2003 U.S. invasion, violent crimes from bank robberies and home invasions to kidnappings appear to have leaped.
Organised crime has come into the spotlight as attacks by insurgents and militants declined and armed groups often have murky, but sometimes close links with the criminals.
Reliable numbers on kidnappings are hard to come by in a nation still wracked by daily attacks. Anecdotally, kidnappings particularly of children appear to have soared.
"Since most of the kidnapping cases happen to women and children, many citizens do not inform the authorities for two reasons: first for fear about the hostage's life...and the second reason is that there is no trust in the security forces," said Kamel Amin Hashem, a senior human rights ministry official.
In Muntazer's living room, his mother sits, dressed in black from head to toe, and cries faintly as she lifts up pictures of her son -- one is of his acid-burnt body.
"What did he do to deserve that? To be tortured in this way, he was an innocent child," Wafaa Jassim said.
Now, people in the neighbourhood accompany their children everywhere.
Police in the district say crimes a few years ago were mostly sectarian killings and the like, but now it is different.
"When security stabilised, ordinary crimes increased ... these crimes increased as most people's business flourished," said one policeman.
MORE FEARFUL THAN DEATH
Nineteen-year-old Ahmed Ihsan's captors treated him well.
They fed him sandwiches or rice and soup, normal Iraqi fare, and after his father paid $20,000, the kidnappers let Ihsan go.
"I thank God that I got out from this, and I learned many lessons from my mistakes," he said.
The chaos that followed the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein more than six years ago created ample space for operatives of the former regime, established criminals and newcomers alike to break into the kidnapping business.
Baghdad Security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said that there had been no increase in the number of seizures, but that kidnappings have become more visible since the fall in bombings, shootings and other attacks.
Security forces thwart seven out of 10 kidnappings, he said. His information contrasted with the public perception that kidnappers operate with considerable impunity.
Unemployment and easy access to weapons have all exacerbated the rise of violent criminal gangs.
The economic and emotional cost to families is huge.
"It's more fearful than death," said Samer Muscati, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch.
And with political infighting, a divided security service and weak institutions, kidnappings are likely to continue.
Back at Muntazer's house, his father asks his youngest son what he thinks happened to his brother.
The little boy clutches a warm bottle of milk.
"Disappeared," he says before wandering off.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Michael Christie)

Reuters