Officials confirm kidnapping of U.S. contractor in Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 6, 2010; 5:05 PM

Baghdad -- An American contractor working for the U.S. military in Baghdad has been kidnapped by a Shiite militant group, U.S. officials said this weekend in response to a statement and video issued by the group.

The abduction of contractor Issa T. Salomi, 60, of El Cajon, Calif., marks the first reported kidnapping of an American in Iraq since the summer of 2008.

The incident suggests that reconciliation talks between the Iraqi government and the League of the Righteous, a militant group that split from the movement led by fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have broken down.

U.S. officials, who had high hopes for the reconciliation process, say they fear that the militant group, which has killed and kidnapped Americans and Britons, will continue to wage violence if it remains in the margins of the political system.

A statement and a short video posted on the militant group's Web site Thursday demanded the release of militants who have fought U.S. forces and called for punishment of the guards employed by Blackwater Worldwide -- now known as Xe Services -- who were involved in a shooting incident in Baghdad in 2007 that claimed the lives of 14 Iraqis.

The video showed a man the group said is Salomi. Two U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the man in the video is the missing contractor.

The Pentagon said in a statement that Salomi has been missing since Jan. 23. He was last seen in Baghdad, where he worked alongside U.S. troops. "Search and recovery efforts are ongoing," the statement said.

Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's director of intelligence and criminal investigations, said Salomi was kidnapped in Karrada, an upscale district in central Baghdad. Another Iraqi intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Salomi, who is of Iraqi descent, was visiting relatives at the time.

In the video, a man wearing U.S. combat fatigues says he is in good health and reports that he is being treated humanely. He 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."

The man also says the Blackwater guards involved in the shooting in the capital's Nisoor Square should face "proper justice" and "proper punishment" for what he describes as "unjustifiable crimes against innocent Iraqi civilians who were bystanders."

A U.S. district judge dismissed an indictment Dec. 31 against five of the guards charged in the shootings, saying prosecutors and investigators made serious mistakes in preparing the case.

In the video, the captive speaks calmly and is seen sitting on a chair in front of a banner bearing the name of the militant group. "I would also like to relay the justifiable demands of the Iraqi Islamic resistance movement for the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq, so Iraq can become a sovereign nation again," he says at the end of the video.

Reached at home, Salomi's wife, Muna, 52, said she was distraught.

"I'm very sick," she said. "I cannot talk."

Last month, Qais al-Khazaali, a leading figure in the League of the Righteous and a former lieutenant to Sadr, was released from U.S. custody and freed by Iraqi officials. Shortly before, British hostage Peter Moore, who was abducted in 2007 from the Iraqi Finance Ministry along with four bodyguards, was released.

Those releases were widely seen as an exchange.

The League of the Righteous has been in reconciliation talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. Last week, however, group leaders accused the government of going back on its promise to release detainees.

U.S. military officials say they fear violence could surge if talks between the group and the Iraqi government collapse.

U.S. officials have cautioned that kidnapping remains a serious threat for American government employees and civilians in Iraq. They say they worry that finding Americans abducted in Baghdad will be more challenging under regulations that came into effect last summer.

The rules, imposed as part of the nominal withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, have restricted the movement and authority of U.S. troops in urban areas.

londonoe@washpost.com

fadell@washpost.com

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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