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U.S. Investigating Disappearance Of Americans In Iraq


U.S. officials are looking for three Americans who have disappeared in Baghdad. Years ago, during the height of the U.S. presence in Iraq, there were many cases of Americans being kidnapped by militias, but that hasn't happened in years. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us now from Baghdad. Hi, Alice.


SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about how these three people went missing?

FORDHAM: Well, what we know for sure is limited, Ari, but I can tell you a U.S. official has confirmed to NPR that the three missing Americans were subcontracted by a group called General Dynamics, which is contracted by the defense department here in Baghdad. Now the company itself didn't respond to requests for comment, and all the U.S. embassy will say here is that they are investigating the disappearance of several individuals, they can't say more because of privacy rules. And another thing we know for sure is that in the Baghdad suburb of Dora, which is where they're believed to have disappeared, there's a huge manhunt underway. Streets closed, surveillance aircraft, houses being raided by Iraqi security forces. Now beyond that, we're filling in the gaps with reports from Iraqi and from other security sources who've spoken to NPR on condition of anonymity. And these aren't things we've been able to confirm independently, but I'm hearing from multiple sources that there were two Iraqi-Americans and an Egyptian-American - it may have been two men and one woman - and that they went into a social event in that neighborhood, Dora - which is a rough area, actually - on Friday afternoon. That social event was then raided by an armed group in uniforms, likely a militia, which detained the three of them. Now that's the prevailing theory. That's what we're hearing from people, including the Iraqi Interior Ministry, although it's also been suggested that they were driving along a highway when they were taken.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any idea who this armed group in uniforms, who this militia might have been?

FORDHAM: Well, it seems likely that they were one of a lot of Shiite Muslim militias which now operate in Baghdad. Some of these groups are actually allied with the government and are very active in the fight against ISIS. But there's a lot more, usually smaller, groups who style themselves sometimes as moral enforcers, so they do things like raid brothels or parties. There's also just a lot of criminal activity, Ari. There's gangs kidnapping for money. The Iraqi economy has suffered badly from low oil prices, among other things, and we're seeing more and more reports of crime - kidnapping, as well as bank robberies and that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: Do you get the sense that this was a planned operation or a crime of opportunity? I mean, are Americans being targeted in Baghdad again?

FORDHAM: Well, again, it's hard to say. I can tell you the context of this is that a lot of the Shiite militias have close ties with Iran, so some analysts were wondering whether this was could have been connected with an Iranian wish for bargaining chips, but that's speculation. We haven't heard anything from the captors, so there's absolutely no evidence to support that theory currently. Although obviously, it doesn't say anything good about security in Baghdad. The prime minister's economic advisor was just lamenting to me this morning that he would love Americans to come and invest in Iraq, and this kind of incident makes that less and less likely.

SHAPIRO: Generally speaking, in the parts of Iraq that are not held by ISIS, what is security like these days?

FORDHAM: You know, it's often not good because so much of the police and the army are deployed to fight ISIS elsewhere. Violence flared up in the southern city of Basra this week, and in the last year we've seen kidnappings of a group of Turkish construction workers and a group of Qatari nationals who were on a hunting trip in the southern part of Iraq.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alice Fordham speaking with us from Baghdad. Thanks, Alice.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.