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Americans seized from party flat – US, Iraq search for kidnapped 3

BAGHDAD, Jan 18, (Agencies): Search operations were underway Monday for three Americans kidnapped from a “suspicious apartment” in Baghdad, in a rare abduction of Western nationals in the Iraqi capital. Kidnappers in Iraq have recently seized groups of Qataris and Turks, but it has been years since Americans were abducted, with Iraqis suffering the most from kidnappings for ransoms or to settle scores. The Islamic State group, which overran large areas in 2014, has abducted thousands of people in Iraq, while Shiite paramilitary forces opposed to the jihadists have also carried out kidnappings. “Three people carrying American nationality were kidnapped while they were in Dura… inside a suspicious apartment,” a spokesman for the Baghdad security command said in a statement. “Security forces have begun searching for them,” he said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the abductions and the identities and employment of the victims were unclear. A police colonel said on condition of anonymity that an Iraqi translator took the Americans for “drinking and women” at an apartment in the Dura area. Militiamen “attacked the place”, the colonel said, adding that “they were kidnapped from inside the apartment, not from the street.” They were apparently taken to another area, as Dura was searched and they were not found, the officer said. He said that the translator was also kidnapped. Brothels and alcohol shops have been repeatedly targeted by powerful Shiite militia groups in Baghdad over the years. Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al- Juburi condemned the rise in “cases of foreigners being kidnapped in Iraq,” saying it would harm the country’s relations with other states. “The kidnapping of the American citi-zens yesterday, and before them the Qatari hunters, whose fate is still unknown, without a doubt indicates the increasing work of organised gangs in Iraq,” Juburi said in a statement.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that the US was “working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals.” Both Juburi and the police colonel said the kidnappings took place Sunday, but some reports indicated they happened earlier. Iraq turned to paramilitary forces dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias in 2014 to help combat IS jihadists. These groups, which fall under an umbrella organisation known as the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units, have played a key role in the fi ght against IS. But they and their affi liates have also been accused of abuses including summary executions, kidnappings and destruction of property. The US is leading a coalition of countries that have bombed thousands of IS targets in Iraq and Syria and which are providing training to Baghdad’s forces. Washington has also dispatched special forces to Iraq to carry out raids against the jihadists.

Both American forces and Shiite paramilitaries are battling IS, but relations between the two sides have been tense, especially due to fi ghting between them in the years after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. IS also has ample motive to target Americans, but while it is able to carry out bombings in Baghdad, it does not have a major presence in the city. Dozens of foreign nationals have been kidnapped in two incidents during the past fi ve months. Last month, gunmen kidnapped more than two dozen Qataris who had come to southern Iraq to hunt. Their whereabouts are still unknown, as are the identities of their kidnappers. But Shiite militia groups have a major presence in southern Iraq, while IS does not. The kidnapping of the Qataris came a little over three months after gunmen seized 18 Turks in Baghdad.

They were later released unharmed. The kidnapping of the Turks was claimed by an organisation that presented itself as a Shiite group called “Furaq al- Mawt”, or “Death Squads”, in a video claiming the abductions. Iraqi security forces clashed with fi ghters from the powerful Ketaeb Hezbollah militia during the search for the kidnapped Turks. It has been years since an American was kidnapped in Iraq. Issa T. Salomi, an American of Iraqi origins, went missing in Baghdad in January 2010 and was later freed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful Shiite group that is now one of the leading forces in the Hashed al-Shaabi. When Islamic State militants fl eeing the Iraqi military’s advance in Ramadi tried to force Mohammed Nafaa to follow them across the city for the fourth time in as many months, he and his family hid inside and hoped to be left alone. After the militants retreated again last week, Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces evacuated Nafaa and scores of other residents who had been hiding for around ten days, steering them to safety through streets mined with explosives. Ramadi has been touted as the fi rst major success for Iraq’s US-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s lightning advance across the country’s north and west in mid-2014. But clearing the city from militants and explosives could take weeks. And the discovery of more civilians than expected trapped among the ruins, after what the survivors say was a deliberate effort by fi ghters to use them as shields, suggests future battles against Islamic State could be more complicated.

Contrary to initial estimates in the hundreds, commanders say their forces have so far extricated about 3,800 civilians from Ramadi, a city of hundreds of thousands of residents largely evacuated after Islamic State seized control in May. The counter-terrorism forces, which spearheaded Ramadi’s recapture with the help of hundreds of US-led coalition air strikes, have had to shift gears from direct combat to humanitarian relief, according to the commanders. “We’re not that prepped to deal with civilians, but we just improvised on the ground,” said Colonel Arkan, who declined to provide his last name. “We’re giving help and support and care on one hand and fi ghting at the same time.” Strict rules of engagement may have limited civilian casualties in the city, but they have slowed the military’s advance and allowed militants to escape to northern and eastern outskirts.

Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, the fertile Euphrates river valley running from the Syrian border to the outskirts of Baghdad, where Sunni Muslim tribes have resented the Shi’ite-led central government since US troops toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Islamic State fi ghters’ determination to hide among civilians in Ramadi raises concerns about upcoming battles in Mosul, Islamic State’s northern stronghold which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to retake this year, and Falluja, the longest-held militant city sitting at Baghdad’s western gates. “Falluja is full of families, not like Ramadi… And in Mosul more than 70 percent of the (two million) residents are still there,” said General Fadel Barwari, a senior counter-terrorism offi cer.

“The biggest problem is how we enter the city while they are using families as human shields,” he told Reuters on Saturday at a command centre in southern Ramadi. “They don’t care how many they kill; the only thing they care about is Islamic State.” The combination of counter-terrorism forces and coalition air strikes is expected to be critical in future battles, with the rest of the army, police and irregular forces composed mainly of Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias and some Sunni tribal fi ghters providing support and holding land. Established and trained by US Special Forces following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the counter-terrorism forces are equipped to handle limited operations involving civilians such as hostage situations. But dealing with civilians on this scale is uncharted territory for the force of several hundred black-clad soldiers. “Ramadi is the fi rst case that we have civilians within our operational spectrum like this. For us it’s a good initial training that this is how we’re going to deal with them,” said Colonel Arkan.

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