Iraq said fretting over possible Israeli strikes on pro-Iran group behind abduction

Iraqi source tells London-based Elaph there is growing ‘anxiety’ in Baghdad over potential air raids on Kataeb Hezbollah, which Israel says kidnapped researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov

File: Members of Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah marching in military uniforms step on a representation of an Israeli flag in Baghdad, Iraq, July 25, 2014, during the annual 'Jerusalem Day' march. (AP/Hadi Mizban)
File: Members of Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah marching in military uniforms step on a representation of an Israeli flag in Baghdad, Iraq, July 25, 2014, during the annual 'Jerusalem Day' march. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

Iraq is reportedly growing concerned about the possibility that Israel will launch airstrikes on its soil against a powerful Iran-backed radical Shiite group that Jerusalem accuses of being behind the abduction of Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in Baghdad in March, an Iraqi political source said Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office revealed on Wednesday that Tsurkov, 36, had been abducted by Kataeb Hezbollah (Brigades of the Party of God), a powerful Iraqi Shiite militia backed by Iran, and warned that Israel holds the state of Iraq “responsible for her fate and safety.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source told (link to report in Arabic) the London-based, Arabic-language independent news site Elaph on Thursday that “anxiety started spreading in Iraq” following Netanyahu’s announcement and that there were growing fears about the possibility of Israel launching airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah targets and positions in Iraq.

The source told Elaph he was surprised the abduction was not discussed when Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani presided over a meeting with the Ministerial Council for National Security on Wednesday and that no government position was offered.

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 who were integrated into the Iraqi security forces in recent years. The US government listed it as a terrorist organization in 2009.

On Thursday, the group issued an ambiguous statement that implied it was not involved in Tsurkov’s disappearance and said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of “Zionist hostage or hostages” in the country.

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

There has been no official comment from Iraq since Tsurkov went missing.

Israel said Tsurkov had entered 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.”

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.

Days after her disappearance, a local Iraqi website reported that an Iranian citizen who was involved in her kidnapping had been detained by Iraqi authorities. The website said she was kidnapped from the Karada neighborhood and that Iran’s embassy in the Iraqi capital was pressing for the man’s release and deportation to Iran.

The News Lines Institute, an American think tank where Tsurkov is a fellow, said that it was informed of her kidnapping in late March but decided not to publicize the event in the hope of a quick release and “out of respect for her family’s wishes.”

Kataeb Hezbollah is one of the most prominent Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq. It was established in March 2003 following the US invasion of the country and was recognized by the Iraqi government as a component of Iraq’s security forces in 2018 under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group established with the aim to eradicate the Islamic State group.

The militia has become an integral part of the official Iraqi security establishment while actually being subordinate to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

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