Iraqi PM: 3 Americans were abducted by 'criminal gangs'

AP News
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Posted: Jan 22, 2016 9:44 AM

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister said Friday that there appears to be no political motivation behind the recent abduction of three Americans in Baghdad, saying the men seem to have been taken by "criminal gangs."

Speaking from Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum, Haider al-Abadi said that no ransom demand have been received and that authorities were looking for the men.

"I don't believe there's any political thing out of this because what political gain would anybody get," al-Abadi said. "I think it's mainly ... criminal gangs, unfortunately, but we are going to find out."

The Americans were abducted in Dora, a mixed neighborhood that is home to both Shiites and Sunnis, on Saturday. Baghdad authorities said the Americans were kidnapped from a "suspicious apartment," and provided no other details. There has been no claim of responsibility. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has confirmed only that an unspecified number of Americans are missing.

Separately, Iraqi and Western security officials claimed two powerful Shiite militias — Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Saraya al-Salam — are the top suspects in the abduction. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

If a Shiite militia does prove to be responsible for the abductions, it could fuel longstanding accusations that al-Abadi's government is unable to control these state-sanctioned paramilitary squads — which have grown in strength as Iraqi security forces battle the Islamic State group.

Following the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the summer of 2014, Shiite militias filled the vacuum, growing more powerful militarily than the country's own security forces. They are some of the most effective forces on the ground combatting the Islamic State group in Iraq, and also run security in many Baghdad neighborhoods.

The Iraqi government-allied militias are now officially sanctioned and known as Popular Mobilization Committees.

But many trace their roots to the armed groups that battled U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion and kidnapped and killed Sunnis at the height of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. In the fight against IS, human rights groups have accused them of abuses targeting Sunni civilians — charges denied by militia leaders.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Iranian-backed and one of the most powerful Shiite militias operating in Iraq, has repeatedly spoken out against the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq in the fight against IS. Saraya al-Salam is run by Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose Mahdi militia often battled with U.S. forces between 2003 and 2011.

Since taking office in 2014 just months after Mosul fell to IS, Abadi has struggled to balance the growing power of Shiite militia groups with his government's dependence on the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group.

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Davos, Switzerland contributed to this report.