An Iraqi Shiite group with close ties to Iran claimed in a video posted Saturday that it was holding an American hostage who is believed to be an El Cajon man reported missing in Baghdad by the Pentagon.
A brief Defense Department statement Friday said that Issa T. Salomi, 60, who works as a civilian contractor, had been unaccounted for since Jan. 23.
The undated video posted on an Islamist website shows a gray-haired man wearing U.S. military combat fatigues seated beneath a black banner bearing the name Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous. U.S. officials say the group, which has been linked to abductions of British and U.S. contractors, is armed, trained and funded by Iran.
In a brief statement accompanying the video, Asaib al Haq claims it is holding the man as a result of a “kidnapping operation” carried out in Baghdad.
It gives no further details, but the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Iraqi defense official identifying the man as Salomi and saying that he was abducted after being lured to the Karada district in central Baghdad.
If the kidnapping is confirmed, it again will raise concern for the safety of foreigners in the country just as Iraq is hoping to open its doors to overseas investment.
The man shown in the video, who does not give his name, calmly recites what appears to be a memorized statement containing “justifiable demands” that are addressed to the U.S. government in the name of “the Islamic resistance of Iraq.”
He calls for the release of all Iraqi prisoners who have not committed crimes against fellow Iraqis. He also demands punishment for members of the security firm formerly known as Blackwater for their “unjustifiable crimes against innocent Iraqi citizens” and asks that the families be given compensation.
Blackwater, now called Xe, is embroiled in a legal battle with the Iraqi government over the shooting deaths of at least 14 civilians in Baghdad’s Nissoor Square in September 2007, as well as a number of other instances in which its guards are alleged to have killed Iraqi civilians. The Obama administration has said it will appeal the Dec. 31 dismissal by a federal judge of criminal charges against five of the guards.
The man opens his statement by extending “good wishes” to his wife, family and friends and adds, “I am being treated kindly and I am in good health.” He concludes by calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq.
Asaib al Haq is a militant group that broke away from the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr in the middle of the last decade, and refused to observe the Mahdi Army’s cease-fire declared in August 2007.
The group claimed responsibility for seizing five British hostages in 2007, and is suspected to be holding U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Ahmed Qusai Taei, an Iraqi American who reportedly was abducted in 2006.
One of the group’s leaders, Qais Khazali, was recently released from U.S. custody shortly after one of the British hostages, Peter Moore, was freed. At the time, U.S. and Iraqi officials described the releases as part of a “reconciliation” effort that they hoped would see Asaib al Haq shun violence and participate in Iraq’s upcoming elections.
But the group recently warned that an agreement with the government to refrain from violence was on the verge of collapse because the government had not kept its promise to secure the release of all detainees belonging to the group.
Times staff writer Mohammed Arrawi contributed to this report.