Family seeks answers about lone U.S. servicemember unaccounted for in Iraq
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 16, 2012
In almost nine years of war, more than 1.5 million U.S. troops served in Iraq, with 4,408 losing their lives. The last 40,000 crossed into Kuwait by Dec. 18.
Except for U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie.
Altaie is the lone U.S. servicemember unaccounted for from operations in Iraq.
The Iraqi-born reservist from Michigan was abducted more than five years ago in Baghdad after breaking the rules and sneaking outside the wire to meet his Iraqi wife.
In the days after he went missing, 3,000 coalition soldiers conducted more than 50 raids to find their comrade. At least one soldier was killed; others were wounded.
As the trail turned cold, Altaie’s family and friends grew frustrated by what they say is the U.S. government’s lack of effort to find him.
“They won’t talk about it,” Altaie’s ex-wife and self-described best friend, Linda Racey, said from Michigan recently. “They feel he’s not worth looking for. They’re not doing anything.”
Ahmed’s brother, Hathal Taie Altaie, said the family hasn’t been able to get answers from the government since the abduction.
“We need to know the truth,” he said. “Some say he’s in Iran. Some say he’s dead. At least they could find out if he’s alive or not.”
Now, after almost no movement in the case in about a year, the family has latched onto a glimmer of hope.
On Dec. 26, Altaie’s family was watching Al Arabiya News Channel when a man they say might have information about the missing solder appeared before the cameras.
Qais al-Khazali is the leader of Asaib Ahel al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia responsible for abductions and the deaths of U.S. troops. In 2010, the group claimed to be holding Altaie and offered to exchange him for detained members of its group. On TV, Khazali pledged to put down his weapons so his group could join the Iraqi government. He said their “duty” to fight the Americans was over.
If Khazali was sincere about joining the Iraqi government, might he be willing to return Altaie, the family wondered?
“They claim they have Ahmed,” said Hathal Altaie. “They are probably liars, but we don’t know. This guy must know something. The U.S. government needs to pressure the Iraqis.”
No clear answers
U.S. and Iraqi officials remain quiet.
Raifet Ahmad, a spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, said he had asked Baghdad officials what was being done to find Altaie and whether the government had questioned Khazali. He didn’t receive an answer.
Asked the same questions, the White House declined to comment, as did the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the FBI. The Army, the office of the Secretary of Defense, Pentagon officials and the CIA directed inquiries to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, which is responsible for investigating missing servicemembers from “past” conflicts.
The Missing Personnel Office took over the case from U.S. Central Command on Dec. 1, 2011, but spokeswoman Maj. Carie Parker said her office has yet to receive all of Altaie’s case files. She “couldn’t say” when the office would be up to speed on the case.
“In fact, we are still combing archives on old cases from as far back as World War II,” Parker wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
“Staff Sgt. Altaie’s status is ‘missing-captured’ and his status will not change until there is information that indicates otherwise,” she said. “The U.S. government is actively pursuing any and all leads thoroughly.”
Parker said efforts would be coordinated through the embassy in Iraq and directed Stars and Stripes to an embassy public affairs officer who never responded to calls or emails.
The perceived lack of cooperation between agencies doesn’t sit well with Altaie’s family. Hathal Altaie met with representatives of all of the major agencies about a month ago and learned nothing, he said.
“No one gave us any clear answers,” he said. “All we hear is, ‘We’re working on it. We’ll let you know.’ To be honest, they’re not doing enough.”
The family even pleaded its case to the office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
“My office continues to monitor this case and to ensure that Staff Sgt. Altaie’s family is kept informed of any developments,” Levin said in a statement released by Kathleen Long, a spokesman in his office.
Racey, who has spearheaded efforts to keep the case active, said she believes Levin’s office has “blown off” the family, as have the other agencies.
Racey and Altaie have known each other for more than 20 years and remained close after amicably divorcing in 2001, she said. Once the point person for the family, Racey said the agencies won’t talk to her anymore because she kept pushing for answers.
“I’ve been on the case for five years and three months,” she said. “I’ll never give up on this.”
Altaie and his parents left Iraq when he was 12, his mother, Nawal, said. An aviation enthusiast, Altaie found work in Michigan as a mechanic on airplanes, but was laid off in 2001. The couple divorced that year.
The Ann Arbor Muslim was operating on auto-pilot, a man without a plan, until a visit to Iraq in 2003 with his family. Nawal said that her son fell in love again with the country of his birth, especially Baghdad. During his trip, which lasted for several months, he met the woman who would become his wife, Israa Sultan, according to Racey.
The family left Iraq once again as the security situation worsened, Nawal said.
Family members said Altaie was committed to going back to Iraq, and the fluent Arabic speaker could have taken lucrative contractor jobs there as a translator. Instead, he joined the Army Reserve in December 2004, according to Hathal. Family members said he wanted to support the mission in Iraq — as a proud American citizen and soldier. In 2005 he returned, as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad, and acted as a translator in the embassy for VIPs.
Altaie and Sultan were married in 2006, his wife told the Detroit News in June, her only interview since the abduction. The marriage would have been against military regulations, since troops are not allowed to marry citizens of a country that the U.S. military is involved with in a conflict. However, Army spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell would later say that Altaie had not broken the rules because of the timing of his marriage.
On Oct. 22, 2006, Altaie called Racey to make sure she was taking her insulin for her diabetes, she said. It was Ramadan, and Altaie told her he had given his new wife’s family $100 to buy a leg of lamb for the feast. He told them he would return the next day at 4 p.m., Racey recalled.
Racey could hear ordnance exploding in the background. What he said next now haunts her.
“He said, ‘It’s getting real dangerous here,’” she said. “‘If I die, Linda, I want to be buried next to you,’” he told her. “That’s the last thing he said.”
The next day, Altaie stole off from Baghdad’s Green Zone in civilian clothes on a new scooter for an unauthorized visit to Sultan, Racey said, according to her early conversations with the FBI and other agencies.
There are discrepancies regarding the circumstances, but Army officials acknowledged that Altaie was married to Sultan. Altaie wasn’t a bad person, Racey said, but he was known to sometimes break the rules. When he worked at the airport, for example, he would leave work early, asking someone to punch out for him later. He had snuck out of the fortified zone to visit Sultan on several occasions without consequence. This time would be different.
When the 41-year-old linguist, then a specialist, arrived in the Karradah neighborhood of Baghdad, his phone rang. It was the man who had sold him the scooter. The caller heard cars approaching and then listened to Altaie’s cries as he was confronted by several armed masked men before he reached the front door of Sultan’s family home.
Racey said that the FBI interrogated the scooter salesman later, and he told them he heard Altaie’s wife screaming the name of a neighborhood thug. Altaie broke free from the kidnappers and took shelter in Sultan’s family home, hiding in a closet. But the kidnappers came in and took him, cuffing and stuffing him into a Mercedes before driving off.
“This last mistake cost him his life, possibly,” Racey said.
Racey believes the kidnapping was an inside job. “The [kidnappers] knew he would be there at 4 o’clock,” she said.
Sultan now lives in Michigan, where she was taken “for her own protection” as a “spouse of a U.S. Army soldier,” according to Mark Edwards, a spokesman for U.S. Army Human Resources Command.
Hathal Altaie said the family hadn’t spoken to her in more than a year.
Initially, the U.S. government offered a $50,000 reward for information that led to Altaie’s recovery. Caldwell said that in the days after the abduction, U.S. forces conducted dozens of raids, including some in the Shiite militant stronghold of Sadr City. They detained men who confessed to the kidnapping, but said they sold Altaie to another group.
The Ahl Albait Group issued a statement claiming responsibility for the kidnapping. Altaie’s family was confident that he would be returned unharmed, because they believed a U.S. soldier would have value in negotiations.
Four months after Altaie was abducted, a video with no sound surfaced on a militant website showing the soldier standing, reading from a piece of paper. His mother said she barely recognized her handsome son.
“He looked very different from when I saw him [last],” Nawal said, adding that he appeared to have been beaten and looked as if his teeth had been broken.
“I never saw him again,” Nawal said.
In 2009, according to media accounts, an insurgent group tried to coordinate an exchange for Altaie’s body, but the body they handed over belonged to another missing American servicemember.
Then in 2010, a Reuters reporter said he had spoken with the leader of the kidnappers, a man claiming to be from Asaib Ahel al-Haq. He claimed that Altaie had been killed in 2006 by another group and that they had received the body.
Around the same time, relatives saw a statement from Asaib Ahel al-Haq on a website saying they wanted to exchange Altaie for detainees.
That never happened.
The family is tired of the roller-coaster ride.
They say the U.S. government has kept them in the dark, and they have lost faith in their efforts.
Racey now believes she knows why the case has gone cold.
Three months ago, she got an anonymous call from someone who claimed to be on the Army search team. The man told her the Army considered him absent without leave for venturing outside the Green Zone and wouldn’t spend any more money or risk any more lives trying to find him.
Altaie’s family said they are speaking out now because they want to put those rumors to bed. True, he broke the rules, Racey said, but he had left before and always returned. It shouldn’t mean that the U.S. stops looking, she said. People who think he went over to the other side are dead wrong, Racey said. Altaie loved his job in the military and wanted to make a career out of it. Racey is in constant touch with Altaie’s parents, and said Nawal believes her son is alive and prays for his safe return.
Racey doesn’t share her optimism.
“I don’t think he’s still alive,” she said. “I’m a realist.” Still, she said she has dreams in which Nawal calls her to report a miracle, that Altaie has been found alive.
Today, Altaie would be 46. He has been promoted twice while in captivity. Friends and family remember him for his passions: music, flying airplanes and dressing well. Nawal said she will never forget her son’s smile.
“I’m always thinking of him, wishing he would come back,” Nawal said. “We want to know if he’s dead or alive. Please.”