The kidnapping of an Iraqi-American military contractor in Baghdad appears to be the work of a splinter group in response to a breakdown in political reconciliation talks in Iraq rather than a return to the high-profile kidnappings of Westerners, according to US military officials and analysts.
Issa Salomi, a linguist working on an Army project to map tribal structures, was seized on Jan. 23 while visiting relatives in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, according to the US military. A Shiite extremist group, The League of the Righteous, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, (AAH) last week released a video of Mr. Salomi dressed in a US Army uniform and calling for the release of insurgents who fought American forces - and the expulsion of former Blackwater security guards..
It was the first known abduction of a US citizen since Iraqi-American US Army specialist Ahmed al-Ta’ie, also a linguist, was seized while visiting relatives in the same area of Baghdad in 2007. Al-Ta’ie, since promoted to the rank of sergeant, has never been found. The most recent abduction has raised fears that insurgent groups might be reviving the tactic of kidnapping foreigners, once commonly carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups.
But a senior US military leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the kidnapping appears to be a one-off incident possibly sparked by the Iraqi government’s recent arrest of two mid-level members of the AAH, which US officials say is backed by Iran.
He said the group, which broke away from the movement of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after Sadr agreed to a ceasefire in 2008, appears to have further splintered after its leader Sheikh Qais al-Khazali renounced attacks on Iraqi forces and was released from US and Iraqi custody. The release was an apparent exchange for a British hostage and the bodies of three of his bodyguards and seen as key to reconciliation between the Iraqi government and Shiite militant groups.
“What I think has happened…is that there are elements within AAH that are not following any orders from Qais…. We believe it is that element out of that group that is pursuing their kidnapping campaign,” says the senior U.S. official.
Analysts say they believe that kidnapping Americans has become more of a political liability than a windfall for many insurgent groups.
“The Sunnis still need the US to be their interlocutor with the Shiite-dominated government; the Shi'a have an interest in a stable state where they can start the oil flowing – kidnapping runs counter to both those objectives,” says Doug Ollivant, a former director for Iraq at the US National Security Council.
Maneuvering ahead of elections
Although Iran is thought to have eased off on fostering attacks in Iraq in recent months, the shadowy world of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant groups are a main priority of Iraqi government reconciliation efforts ahead of the March 7 elections.
Under Sheikh al-Khazali and his brother Laith, AAH agreed to renounce attacks on Iraqis with the aim of entering the political process in return for a commitment not to arrest its members and for negotiations to free those in custody.
“This one was probably the hardest for the US command to swallow but also the clearest politically,” says a former US military leader who requested anonymity. “The Khazalis were going to be released eventually…it was a question of what we could get.”
“I think we look at it from a practical standpoint. If it stops the killing and it stops the violence it makes sense,” says the senior US military official. “You can’t change what happened but if you can change what’s going to happen…. So we’re all for getting this country back on its feet and moving forward.”
AAH announced last week that it was abandoning reconciliation talks with the Iraqi government after more than a year of negotiations and prisoner exchanges. The split appears to have occurred after an Iraqi and US special forces targeting a suspected member of another allegedly Iranian-backed group, the Promised Day Brigade, detained two mid-level AAH members who were with him. The men were caught with weapons and other contraband and are still in Iraqi custody, according to the US official.
In the video, Salomi, from El Cajon, Calif. says he is being treated humanely and calls for the release of "those detainees who have resisted the occupation and that have never been involved in any serious crime against their fellow innocent Iraqis."
Demand for Blackwater exodus
He also says the Blackwater guards involved in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square should face justice and ‘proper punishment’ for crimes against Iraqi civilian bystanders. Seventeen Iraqis were killed when Blackwater guards protecting a US convoy opened fire in the crowded square in an incident which became a symbol for Iraqis of abuses during the US occupation.
A U.S. judge dismissed an indictment on Dec 31 against five of the guards charged in the shootings, citing flawed evidence. Vice President Joe Biden in a visit to Baghdad last month said he personally regretted the court decision and would seek to have the case go to trial.
This week Iraq’s interior minister ordered 250 contractors who had worked for Blackwater at the time of the shootings out of Iraq. The company has since rebranded itself as Xe but many of the former Blackwater guards have remained in Iraq, working for other companies providing security and aviation services to the US embassy.
Salomi was working as an interpreter on one of the Army’s Human Terrain Teams, according to military sources. The teams, made up of social scientists, are part of a controversial project to provide more cultural background to the military in Iraq and Afghanstan. The US military says it has helped with reconciliation efforts by providing insight into tribal dynamics.