BAGHDAD — 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military.
A Shiite extremist group, The League of the Righteous, Asaib Ahl al Haq, last week released a video of Salomi dressed in a U.S. 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 U.S. citizen since Iraqi-American U.S. 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 Qaida in Iraq and other groups.
A senior U.S. military leader, however, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said 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 extremist group, which U.S. 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 cease-fire in 2008, appears to have further splintered after its leader, Sheik Qais al Khazali, renounced attacks on Iraqi forces and was released from U.S. 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 (Asaib Ahl al Haq) that are not following any orders from Qais. We believe it is that element out of that group that is pursuing their kidnapping campaign," the senior U.S. official said.
Analysts said they think that kidnapping Americans has become more of a political liability than a windfall for many insurgent groups.
"The Sunnis still need the U.S. 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," said Doug Ollivant, a former director for Iraq at the U.S. National Security Council.
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 al Khazali and his brother, Laith, Asaib Ahl al Haq 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.
In a dramatic illustration of the U.S. shift in strategy, the U.S., which believes the Khazalis planned the killing of five U.S. Marines in Karbala in 2007, has facilitated the talks.
"This one was probably the hardest for the U.S. command to swallow but also the clearest politically," said a former U.S. 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," said the senior U.S. 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."
Asaib Ahl al Haq 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 U.S. Special Forces targeting a suspected member of another allegedly Iranian-backed group, the Promised Day Brigade, detained two mid-level members of the group who were with him.
The men were caught with weapons and other contraband and are still in Iraqi custody, according to the U.S. official.
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 Afghanistan. The U.S. military says it has helped with reconciliation efforts by providing insight into tribal dynamics.
In the video, Salomi, from El Cajon, Calif., said he's 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."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY