Iraq militia implies it was not involved in abduction of Israeli-Russian researcher

Spokesperson for Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah says group is ‘working tirelessly to find out the fate of the Zionist hostage’

Elizabeth Tsurkov in an undated photo (social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Elizabeth Tsurkov in an undated photo (social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s pro-Iran armed faction Kataeb Hezbollah, accused by Israel of holding an Israeli-Russian academic, implied on Thursday that it was not involved in her disappearance.

The group said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of “Zionist hostage or hostages” in the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday accused Kataeb Hezbollah of holding Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has been missing in Iraq for months.

Kataeb Hezbollah, a distinct entity from the Lebanese Hezbollah, is a powerful faction of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), Iran-backed former paramilitaries that were integrated into the Iraqi security forces in recent years. The US government listed it as a terrorist organization in 2009

In the group’s first reaction to the Israeli accusation, spokesman Abu Ali al-Askari issued an ambiguous press release on Telegram on Thursday.

“The admission by the prime minister of the Zionist entity [Israel] concerning the presence of an Israeli security agent hostage in Iraq is a very dangerous indicator,” it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 25, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

“The security organizations concerned should expose networks linked to this entity and bring them to justice,” it added.

“In turn, Kataeb Hezbollah will work tirelessly to find out the fate of the Zionist hostage or hostages in Iraq… to discover more about the intentions of the criminal gang which facilitates their movements in a country… that prohibits and criminalizes any relationship” with Israel.

Netanyahu’s office revealed on Wednesday that Tsurkov, 36, had visited Iraq “on her Russian passport at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US.”

According to an Iraqi intelligence source, Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad “at the beginning of Ramadan,” the Muslim fasting month which this year started on March 23. She was “leaving the Ridha Alwan cafe” in the Karada neighborhood, according to the New York Times, an area frequented by Westerners “full of coffee shops, clothing stores and markets.”

A Western diplomat stationed in Iraq said that Tsurkov had arrived in Baghdad “at the beginning of December 2022.” According to the Times, “she had undergone emergency back surgery in Baghdad and was recovering from the operation before she was kidnapped.”

An Israeli official said Tsurkov was abducted in Iraq because of her foreign nationalities, Russian and Israeli, and denied rumors in Arabic media that she was operating on behalf of Israeli intelligence.

Another government official confirmed on Wednesday that Tsurkov had made previous trips to Iraq, which Israel considers an enemy country. (The New York Times quoted Iraqi officials saying she had made more than 10 visits.) According to Israeli law, it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter enemy countries, even on a foreign passport.

The official said that Israeli security officials are working together with their US and Russian counterparts to free Tsurkov as soon as possible.

Tsurkov’s website said she was a fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, as well as a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli-Palestinian think-tank based in Jerusalem.

“Liz is very much a part of America. She works with a Washington think tank, writes for an American magazine and studies at Princeton University. She deserves America’s every effort to bring her to safety,” New Lines said on Wednesday.

Witnesses who knew her said Tsurkov used to freely move around in the Iraqi capital.

She had focused on pro-Iran factions and the movement of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr as part of her research on the region, according to several journalists who had met her.

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