Powerful Shiite militias are back in the spotlight after three Americans went missing on Jan. 16. A group of gunmen allegedly took Americans from an apartment police say operated as a brothel. It's feared the attackers were members of a Shiite militia that operates in the neighborhood. (Erin Cunningham,Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

When three Americans were reported kidnapped in the Iraqi capital last weekend, locals immediately suspected powerful militiamen in the area.

A group of gunmen allegedly took the Americans — a woman and two men — from an apartment that police and residents say operated as a brothel in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood.

Who the men were is still not known. They were not members of security forces, locals said. But members of an influential Shiite militia were known to regularly raid the residence — part of the militants’ tradition of policing morality crimes in the city.

The Shiite militias that Iraq mobilized to fight the Islamic State, and whose members are suspected of taking the three Americans, have long used their weapons and power to crack down on activities they deem un-Islamic. For years, the gunmen have attacked brothels, nightclubs and liquor stores, Iraqis say.

The country was once proudly secular, but religious parties have dominated the political landscape since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. A sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites later empowered religious hard-liners. The Shiite militias, some of which were first established to fight the U.S. occupation, also grew strong.

A burnt-out car is seen in the street in eastern Baghdad the day after a bomb attack. Three Americans have been reported missing in the city. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Those armed groups that battled U.S. soldiers now command entire neighborhoods in Baghdad, including the area from which the Americans were allegedly taken Saturday. They run their own checkpoints, are flush with weapons stocks and Iranian cash, and often drive the same kind of armored vehicles as security forces.

Because of their growing authority, the militias “move freely in Baghdad,” said an Iraqi analyst and security consultant, Hisham al-Hashimi.

When the militants punish locals for activities such as drinking, gambling or hiring prostitutes, “no one can say to them, ‘This is wrong,’ ” he said. “It’s a country of militias. And they are doing what they think is right, according to their religion.”

Three missing

Authorities here identified the missing Americans as Wael al-Mahdawi and Rusul Farad — both dual Iraqi American citizens — and Amro Mohamed, an Egyptian American. Little is known about the exact circumstances under which they were seized.

Two Iraqi security officials said the three people were employees of a Virginia-based contracting firm, Sallyport Global Services, which provides security services in Iraq, according to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Sallyport did not respond to an emailed request for comment but issued a statement saying that the missing were not employees of the firm or any company affiliated with it.

Although Iraqi officials say they can confirm that the individuals were kidnapped, the government has not blamed any single group for the abduction.

A police colonel in Baghdad, who was not authorized to speak to the news media, said that the three had most likely been kidnapped by the most powerful group in that area: the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous.

Residents of that part of Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood, including a resident of the building where the apartment was located, also said that Asaib Ahl al-Haq had carried out the raid and that it had stormed the apartment previously. A man whom locals called “Abu Maria” occupied the residence, where he often hosted illicit parties, police said.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an offshoot of the Mahdi Army founded by Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, fought U.S. troops in Iraq. It also has been accused by rights groups of killing Sunni civilians.

The group was believed to be behind the massacre of as many as 30 people, including 20 women, at an alleged brothel in Baghdad’s Zayouna neighborhood in 2014, according to reports at the time. Before that, the United Nations said the militia may have been responsible for the deaths of dozens of young Iraqis who were suspected of being gay or who identified as “emo” because they embraced alternative music and a distinctive style.

“Any armed group operating outside the authority of the state is a gang; they are outlaws,” said Ibrahim al-Abadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry. But when asked about attacks on brothels by Shiite militias, Abadi denied that armed groups were enforcing public morals.

“They are gangs,” he said. “They are the ones that kidnapped the Americans and attack liquor stores.”

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he was not sure whether they had been abducted.

“We don’t [yet] know if they have been kidnapped,” he said Thursday before a meeting with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Davos, Switzerland. “They just went missing.”

When Abadi was asked whether he thought there was an Iranian link to the disappearances, he said: “I don’t know about that. I doubt it very much.”

Shiite majority

Almost all of Iraq’s 33 million people are Muslim, with small minority populations of Christians and Yazidis. The majority of Iraqi Muslims are Shiite, while a substantial number are Sunni.

Only non-Muslims are allowed to sell alcohol in Iraq, according to the law.

Wissam Walid Naim, who is Christian, owns a liquor store and nightclub in central Baghdad, part of a string of similar shops and venues along the bustling Abu Nuwas Street.

Here, Iraqis stock up on whiskey and beer, then take their drinks to a nearby bridge overlooking the Tigris River. It’s a brisk business, Naim said, but they are constantly under threat.

“The police are against us, the army is against us, the militias are against us,” Naim, who runs the store with his father, said Tuesday.

A drive-by shooting recently targeted the shop owners next door, he said, and everyone here suspects the militias. Naim and his father said they pay half of their income in protection fees to security forces and other middlemen.

“If we pay the police and the militias attack us,” Naim said, “then who will protect us?”

Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.