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IRAQ: Kidnapping a reminder of California case

April 7, 2008 |  7:12 am

The news was chilling, even by the standards of this brutalized country: a busload of 42 students kidnapped by masked gunmen Sunday and spirited away into the desert.

Chowchilla_2For Californians, and for anyone obsessed with bizarre and horrible crimes from the past, it conjured up memories of the infamous Chowchilla school kidnapping case, when a busload of pupils from the Dairyland School were taken captive in the California town. According to a book written about the 1976 crime, the three kidnappers, young men from affluent San Francisco area families, drew inspiration from  the 1971 movie "Dirty Harry," which has Clint Eastwood pursuing the maniacal killer Scorpio. Scorpio's heinous crimes include capturing a bus full of schoolchildren.

Both the imaginary Scorpio and the real Chowchilla kidnappers had the same goal: collecting huge ransoms.

There's no word yet on what the men in northern Iraq were hoping to gain. Their prey was not young schoolchildren. They grabbed a bus filled with university students as it traveled toward the northern city of Mosul, where the victims attend classes. As The Times reported last week, Mosul is a hotbed of insurgent activity where U.S. and Iraqi officials say Sunni extremists from Al Qaeda in Iraq are digging in. It also is a center of conflict between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds vying for control of land and power in the north.

As is often the case in Iraq, the youngest and brightest became pawns in the fighting. There have been numerous attacks on university students across the country, including a series of bombings last year that killed scores of students. University professors also are targets of extremists, who view them as Western-thinking infidels or supporters of the U.S.-backed government.

The Mosul bus abduction ended well. Iraqi officials were able to track down the abducted students after spotting a dump truck with a tarp over the back, where the students had been hidden. Soldiers found the truck suspicious, forced it to stop and found the captives, according a U.S. military statement. They arrested two men who were identified by the students as part of the armed gang.

Chowchilla also ended well. After the abductors herded the children into a large moving van and buried it in a rock quarry, the driver and two of the older children clawed their way out. The kidnappers were caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Scorpio's captives also survived, but he wasn't as lucky. After Dirty Harry rescued the schoolchildren, he chased Scorpio down and shot him dead.

— Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: The van in which 26 Chowchilla students and their bus driver were buried in July 1976. Credit: Associated Press.