Friends say that hostage Susanne Osthoff's kidnapping is no surprise

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FEW people who knew her could have been surprised when Susanne Osthoff was taken hostage in Iraq three weeks ago.

Impetuous, imperious and fearless, Ms. Osthoff, a German, had worked for years in Iraq as an archaeologist. After the American-led invasion, she campaigned to stop the looting of Iraq's spectacular archaeological sites.

I have a personal interest in her fate. In June 2003, I bet my life on her and let her guide me to a scene of plundering that could have been taken from "Indiana Jones."

Hordes of looters, swarming like ants over a remote patch in southern Iraq, were digging up sculptures, vases, ornaments and cuneiform tablets. Many relics dated back 3,000 years to the Sumerian era. Weapons were everywhere: AK-47's, pistols, knives, even swords. There was no law, no police, no hint of the American military.

Ms. Osthoff's persistence seems to have shamed American and Iraqi leaders into posting more protection, though the looting continues.

But her exploits had a broader significance, offering clues to why the Americans remain so bedeviled and bewildered by Iraq's complexities. Unlike many of those trying to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, Ms. Osthoff could differentiate between good guys and bad guys.

She also recognized problems that others wanted to ignore. And to the extent that she stayed alive, it was because she had credibility with everyone from local Bedouin leaders to onetime Baathist powerbrokers.

As a reporter for The New York Times in Iraq in June 2003, I met Ms. Osthoff at the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad. She seemed like a vagabond, so short of money that she had been avoiding her hotel bill. But she raged about the devastation of Iraq's archaeological treasure, and she knew what she was talking about.

Donny George, head of research at the Iraqi National Museum, greeted her as an old friend and said he had heard the same stories she had.

Ms. Osthoff wanted to show me the looting firsthand, but her fearlessness seemed to border on recklessness.

"Nothing will happen to you," she scoffed as I fretted. "I know all the people there. I know who to trust. You just have to do what I tell you."

Her self-assurance seemed outrageous. We would be entering an area where a lot of ill-gotten money was at stake. No matter how many armed escorts we might have - and we had several - we would to some extent be at the mercy of the looters, who were legion.

But after teaming up with an American photographer, Matt Moyer, I decided to take up the challenge - one step at a time.

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