BAGHDAD — The three Americans who were abducted in Baghdad last month have been freed, the State Department said Tuesday, and Iraqi officials said they have been handed over to the U.S. Embassy in good health.
The Americans were abducted in Dora, a mixed neighborhood that is home to both Shiites and Sunnis. It was the latest in a series of brazen high-profile kidnappings undermining confidence in the Iraqi government's ability to control state-sanctioned Shiite militias, which have grown in strength as Iraqi security forces battle the Islamic State group. Iraqi and Western officials said they suspected one of two powerful Shiite militias was behind the kidnapping.
In January, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad confirmed that several Americans had gone missing. Iraqi authorities added that the three were kidnapped from a "suspicious apartment."
Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States sincerely appreciates the "assistance provided by the Government of Iraq, and its whole-of-government effort to bring about the safe release of these individuals."
Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the press, said the three were freed by Iraqi security forces.
Separately the U.N. announced Tuesday that it has identified the body of a staff member who was abducted in April 2015. The body of Amer al-Kaissy, an Iraqi national who was the U.N. mission's representative in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, was found in November "bearing signs of execution by gunshot" and was buried, unidentified, by local officials, the statement said. The U.N. said friends and colleagues of al-Kaissy identified the body this week.
"He is suspected to have been abducted by militias active in the area," the U.N. statement said.
A Diyala security official told the Associated Press al-Kaissy's remains have been handed over to his family. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the press.
"For more than nine months we have sought the intervention of the Government on the local and national levels to ensure his safe return to his family," said U.N. secretary General for Iraq Jan Kubis in a statement. "I am deeply disappointed that our efforts and appeals went unanswered."
In December, 26 Qatari hunters were abducted from a remote desert area in southern Iraq by unidentified gunmen driving SUVs. Following the incident, Qatar's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it has contacted "Iraqi government and concerned entities at the highest security and political levels" to ascertain details of what happened and to try to secure the hunters' release. The hunters haven't been heard from since.
In September, 18 Turkish workers were kidnapped in Baghdad's Shiite-dominated Sadr City. A video from a previously unknown militant group showed the hostages and demanded Turkey halt the flow of militants into Iraq, stop the passage of oil from Iraq's northern Kurdish region into Turkish territory and lift what was described as a "siege" on Syrian cities. All the workers were released within a month.
While kidnappings for ransom are common across Iraq, large-scale abductions of foreigners are a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the Americans were snatched last month, the last time a U.S. citizen was kidnapped in Iraq was in 2010. The scale and sophistication of the recent kidnappings of foreigners suggests those responsible are operating with some degree of impunity.
Shiite militias have played a key role in battling the Islamic State group, filling a vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the summer of 2014 and proving to be some of the most effective anti-IS forces in Iraq.
The government-allied militias are now officially sanctioned and known as the 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. Rights groups have accused them of kidnapping and in some cases killing Sunni civilians since they rearmed in 2014, charges denied by militia leaders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has struggled to balance the power and popularity of Shiite militia groups with the government's dependence on the U.S.-led coalition's contributions to the fight against IS. Unchecked, continued brazen shows of Shiite militia power in the Iraqi capital could further undermine the already weak leader.
Associated Press writer Susannah George in Baghdad contributed to this report.