The phone rang at 7:05 p.m. in Amman. Muhammed Ezza nearly knocked over a table as he grabbed the receiver. It was five minutes past the deadline that had been set by his brother's Iraqi abductors for a reply to their $500,000 ransom demand. Three dozen of Hisham Taleb Ezza's kinsmen--brothers, cousins and in-laws waited together last Wednesday evening in a room in the Jordanian capital. They had no way to scrape up such a fortune, but they were ready to empty their bank accounts, borrow against their pensions and sell their cars for anything they could raise. Hisham had been working in Baghdad as an accountant for Starlight, a transport company with U.S. military contracts in Iraq, when gunmen seized him on Oct. 2. Starlight's general director, a Jordanian named Muhammed Ajlouni, had quickly agreed to shut down the company's Iraqi operations, as the kidnappers ordered, but he said he couldn't raise a half-million dollars. "If you can't get the money," the kidnappers told the Ezzas, "kill Ajlouni instead." The family was given 72 hours to think it over.

But Wednesday's 7:05 call was not from the kidnappers. It was only Hisham's wife, frantic for news of her husband. "She's sitting there with two of their daughters on her lap, crying," Muhammed told the men sitting around him. There was nothing they could do but wait for the phone to ring again--and pray.

A score of families around the world were holding similarly desperate vigils last week. Their loved ones had fallen victim to one of Iraq's fastest-growing enterprises: kidnapping. Abduction as a terror tactic still gets the main share of international attention, as in the case of the British captive Kenneth Bigley. He was one of at least seven hostages beheaded by terrorists in Iraq last week, and his murder was videotaped by Tawhid and Jihad, an organization led by the notorious Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. So far, no fewer than 17 different groups have claimed responsibility for kidnapping foreigners in Iraq. Of roughly 150 foreign hostages altogether, about 40 have been killed and at least 20 are still being held. "Iraq is the Olympic stadium where the jihadists get to show off their specialties," says Giandomenico Pico, a former U.N. hostage negotiator.

The problem is compounded by the wildfire spread of abduction for profit. Ransom kidnappings have plagued the people of Iraq ever since the invasion. But in the past three months or so, criminal groups, inspired by the terrorists' kidnapping spree, have discovered that the going rate of $5,000 or $10,000 for an Iraqi hostage is nothing beside the money they can extort from foreigners. Italians welcomed the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, the Italian aid workers who were dragged in broad daylight from their offices in downtown Baghdad on Sept. 7. But the joy has been soured by public confirmation that Italian authorities not only bargained with the kidnappers but apparently delivered a $1 million ransom. Now hostage prices are soaring. Last month a prosperous Jordanian businessman in Iraq haggled his kidnappers down to $80,000 from $1 million. Now Ezza's kidnappers are asking half a million for a bookkeeper.

Most of the 30-odd Coalition countries publicly supported a U.S.-sponsored pact, pledging not to pay ransom to terrorists. Still, few of the member states do anything to stop private negotiations. The Turkish government gave its blessing when a Turkish truckers' association caved in to hostage-takers and pulled its drivers out of Iraq. "The life of our citizens is more important," said a Turkish official who is working to free hostages. After Ezza's captors demanded $500,000, his family asked the Jordanian charge d'affaires in Baghdad what to do. "He said just try to negotiate a price you can pay," says Muhammed Ezza. A Jordanian official in Amman says his government's policy is not to negotiate with terrorists--but not to prevent the families of hostages from cutting their own deals. At least a dozen Jordanians have been freed that way. And Amman's definition of "negotiate with terrorists" is flexible. "We have our relationships with the Iraqi tribes in the Sunni Triangle," the official says. "We are playing politics, doing backstage deals with the tribes, doing our best to save [hostages]."

The Italian government denies paying $1 million for the Simonas, but doesn't deny that such a ransom was paid. "More than 16 negotiations took place to free the Simonas," says intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari. One Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Rai al Aam, evidently had a source inside the kidnappers' group, the self-styled Islamic Army of Iraq. The paper's editor in chief, Jassim Booday, says the group got half the money when go-betweens were allowed to see the hostages. The other $500,000 was delivered on their release. "In principle we shouldn't give in to blackmail, but this time we had to," says Gustavo Selva, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Italy's Parliament. "Although it's a dangerous path."

But a tempting one. Ransom kidnappers want to do business. There's little point in trying to negotiate with jihadists like al-Zarqawi, whose dream is an all-out war between Muslims and the West. Bigley's abductors kept him alive for weeks while he begged for his life. His family denounced the war. Dublin declared him to be an Irish citizen, based on his grandmother's nationality, in hopes that his captors would see him as a struggling, anti-imperialist underdog. Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi, no great friend of the West himself, made a personal plea for the British hostage's life. Nothing helped. "It's Bigley's bad luck that he was captured by the most ruthless of the groups," says Booday. (The BBC reported that he was killed after a failed escape attempt.)

The Ezzas still have hope, but not much else. Muhammed blames Hisham's boss for not putting up the ransom. He says he warned Ajlouni: "The blood of my brother will be on your hands." Ajlouni complained to Jordanian authorities that the Ezzas were threatening to take revenge on him if Hisham dies. "I'm trying to do everything I can to free him," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I've already put 76 people out of work by shutting down in Iraq. But I just don't have half a million dollars." He says he thinks the kidnappers are former employees with a personal grudge against him. "I told the family I will take on this matter until the end."

The cousins debated the point on Wednesday night, waiting for the phone to ring. "He sent 5,000 trucks to Iraq, of course he can pay," said one. "He wants to help, but they have to negotiate." "No, he's a son of a bitch." The phone rang, and everyone fell silent. Another false alarm.

The sun was rising Thursday morning when the phone rang again. A glance at the screen showed Hisham's number. The kidnappers have been using his mobile phone to contact the family.

Hisham was on the line: "Muhammed, how are you? How is the family?"

"Good, thank God."

"You need to be strong to take care of my kids."

"Inshallah, you'll come back to your kids."

"Try to get that money, even though I know it's not within your means. Here, talk to the man here." A kidnapper came on the line.

"If I sell everything under me and over me, I can only get $15,500," said Muhammed.

"It's not enough. You're a big family. Force Ajlouni to pay."

"The financial situation is difficult. We can't do it, we're being watched."

"Cut it short. You have two days. $500,000, or give us Ajlouni." The kidnapper hung up. Muhammed slumped into the nearest chair, tears streaming down his cheeks.