Officials: Missing Americans taken from Baghdad apartment

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Khalid Mohammed | ASSOCIATED PRESS
Iraqi security forces deploy Monday in Baghdad. Security forces fanned out across a Baghdad neighborhood where three Americans were reportedly kidnapped over the weekend.
By Tim Arango The New York Times • Tuesday January 19, 2016 3:15 AM
BAGHDAD — Three Americans who have been missing in Iraq since Friday were probably kidnapped from a Baghdad apartment, according to security officials and local news reports. The apartment may have been the home of an Iraqi colleague who is also believed to have been abducted, the officials and reports said.

News of the Americans’ disappearance emerged late Sunday, but officials said they were probably taken two days earlier in Dora, a sprawling neighborhood in the southern part of the capital that has a mixed population of Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as some Christians. The area was once a haven for al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State, the militant group that controls territory in northern and western Iraq. But these days, parts of the neighborhood are under the sway of powerful Shiite militias with ties to Iran.

U.S. and Iraqi officials were scrambling Monday to find the missing Americans. Officials said no group had yet come forward to take responsibility for abducting them. Kidnappings for ransom by criminal gangs are common in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, but so are politically motivated abductions.

Residents of Dora and Iraqi officials said security forces began searching for the missing Americans on Saturday morning, going door to door and searching homes in some areas.

Saad Maan, the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, said Monday that the Americans were taken from a “suspicious apartment” in Dora, without elaborating.

The Americans were reported to be contractors with jobs at the Baghdad airport, though it was unclear who employed them. At least two of them had dual nationality. Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, said one of the abductees was an Egyptian-American, and another was an Iraqi-American.

“Security forces have taken the responsibility to find the criminals and to find out the circumstances of the abduction,” al-Hadithi said, adding that the Americans had left their place of work without a security detail.

Abductions of Westerners in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities were common in the years after the U.S. invasion in 2003, but the latest episode is believed to be the first kidnapping of an American in Iraq in nearly six years.

In 2010, an Iraqi-American who had been working as a linguist for the U.S. Army was held for two months and then released. It was said at the time that he was taken by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a prominent Shiite militia controlled by Iran that had previously been behind other abductions of Americans.

There have, however, been a number of recent high-profile abductions in Iraq of other foreigners, believed to have been carried out by Shiite militias for political reasons. At least 17 Turkish construction workers were taken from Baghdad last year and later released unharmed. More recently, more than two dozen Qataris, some with ties to the royal family there, were kidnapped in mid-December from the southern desert, where they were hunting rare birds. Their whereabouts is still unknown.

These cases and the apparent kidnapping of Americans are embarrassments for the Iraqi government, and could complicate the relationship between Iraq and the United States at a time when the two countries are trying to cooperate more closely in fighting the Islamic State. The latest incident also highlights the government’s lack of control over security in the capital.

“The kidnapping of the Americans citizens, and before them the Qatari hunters, whose fates are still unknown, undoubtedly indicating the growing activities of the organized gangs in Iraq,” Salim al-Jubouri, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, said in a statement Monday. “This will affect the relations of Iraq with its neighbors, and friendly and allied countries.”

Since summer 2014, when the Islamic State conquered Mosul, in the north, and began capturing other territories, Shiite militias that are only nominally under the control of the prime minister have played an important role in the security of Baghdad. The militias have also been accused of a host of abuses, including kidnappings and sectarian revenge killings.

Late Sunday, the State Department confirmed that it was working with the Iraqi authorities to find the three Americans but provided no other details.