LONDON -- She's lived in Iraq for three decades and has been a passionate advocate for its people, arguing against the US-led invasion, but humanitarian worker Margaret Hassan finds herself a pawn as the latest hostage in the conflict gripping her adopted homeland.
Director of CARE International's operations in Iraq since 1991, she headed a staff of 60 Iraqis running nutrition, health, and water programs and stayed put during last year's war and the ensuing insurgency.
Described by friends as caring, tough, and direct, Hassan campaigned against UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime occupied Kuwait in 1990. She traveled to the UN headquarters in New York and to Britain's Parliament before the latest war to warn of the threat to already suffering Iraqis.
Hassan, who is in her early 60s, is married to an Iraqi and ''considers herself an Iraqi national," CARE spokeswoman Amber Meikle said in London. The Irish foreign minister said she was born in Ireland and is an Irish citizen.
A CARE statement said Hassan had done aid work in Iraq for more than 25 years. The group declined further comment, saying that might impede efforts to win her freedom.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain would work for Hassan's release.
''This is someone who has actually lived in Iraq for 30 years, is someone who is immensely respected, married to an Iraqi, someone who is doing her level best to help the country," Blair said. ''It shows the kind of people we are up against that they are prepared to kidnap somebody like this."
In Brussels, the European Union's top aid official condemned Hassan's kidnapping, saying the Brussels-based CARE was a longtime partner of the EU's aid office in Iraq.
''Her abduction comes as yet another blow for the humanitarian community, and for all the vulnerable Iraqis benefiting from aid programs," EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielson said.
He praised Hassan for choosing ''to dedicate her life to help the Iraqi people."
British journalist Robert Fisk said he got to know Hassan after his newspaper, The Independent, raised about $250,000 to provide medicine for Iraqis six years ago.
Put in charge of distributing the drugs, Hassan ''did an extraordinary job," he said in an interview yesterday with Ireland's RTE network. ''She managed to browbeat the authorities, the UN and the Americans, to get these medicines into Iraq . . . complex medicines for leukemia sufferers. She is an extraordinarily energetic woman."
Fisk said Hassan speaks fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent. ''She was very careful not to involve herself in any political discussion," he said.
''She constantly talked about Iraq as a wonderful country and was very dedicated to the people there. So here, once again, we have a woman who should be a heroine in Iraq and instead she's a hostage."
In a 1998 interview, Fisk described Hassan as frustrated over the hardships suffered by Iraqis under UN sanctions. ''This is a man-made disaster," she said.
Hassan told Fisk that aid groups were helping some Iraqis but the need was too great because ''inhuman" sanctions had wrecked Iraq's once-prosperous economy. ''The people are really, really suffering," she said. ''Do people know what it's like for a mother to wake up each morning not knowing whether she can feed her child -- in a country which can feed every child?"