US lawmakers press White House to secure release of Israeli researcher kidnapped in Iraq

House Democrats urge Biden in letter to ramp up negotiations for Elizabeth Tsurkov’s release ahead of Iraqi PM’s visit to Washington, deny rumors Tsurkov worked as ‘Western spy’

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)

A group of Democratic legislators signed a letter on Monday pressing the Biden administration to help free the Russian-Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, who was abducted last year in Baghdad and has been held in captivity since.

The 16 signatories, House representatives led by Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, addressed the letter to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of an anticipated visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Noting that over a year has passed since her abduction, the letter urged Biden and the State Department to “continue pursuing negotiations for her release with all relevant parties as part of the United States’ longtime security partnership with the government of Iraq.”

A Princeton doctoral student, Tsurkov went missing in late March of last year while doing research for her PhD dissertation on Shiite movements in Iraq. She likely used her Russian passport to enter the country, as Israel and Iraq do not have diplomatic relations.

After conducting an investigation into her quiet disappearance, Israeli authorities revealed in July that Tsurkov had been kidnapped, implicating the Iran-backed armed militia Kataeb Hezbollah in her abduction.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced in a statement following the investigation that it “views Iraq as responsible for her fate and safety” and emphasized that Tsurkov traveled to Baghdad on her own initiative. Under Israeli law, it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter enemy countries, even on a foreign passport.

The Iraqi government began an investigation soon after Israeli officials went public with Tsurkov’s kidnapping, though it has not yet made any breakthrough.

In November, an Iraqi satellite TV network aired footage of Tsurkov, seemingly under duress, in which she asked in Hebrew for her release and “admitted” to being a Western spy.

“The security services are still following the case of the disappearance of the Russian citizen in Baghdad and are sparing no effort to find any leads leading to the kidnapped person,” said Husham al-Rikabi, a communications adviser to Iraq’s prime minister, in November.

Both Israeli and American officials have denied claims that Tsurkov worked as a spy for either government. The lawmakers’ letter called these allegations “categorically false and coerced.”

“She is not a CIA agent but a journalist and political science doctoral candidate at Princeton who traveled to Iraq to conduct fieldwork for her study of strategies to reduce sectarian-based conflict in the Middle East,” the letter read. “Despite the instability in the region, she bravely pursued her calling based on her conviction that there are concrete pathways to peace and security for the region.”

According to a Channel 12 report relying on Arab intelligence sources, it was Tsurkov who initially made contact with her captors, seeking to interview them for her research.

She allegedly contacted a Shiite man named Ahmad Alawani, asking for a meeting with his cousin Muhammad Alawani, a senior official in Kataeb Hezbollah. The two men discovered that Tsurkov was Israeli upon their second meeting, and decided to kidnap her.

Iraqi intelligence sources quoted by AFP said that Tsurkov was kidnapped while leaving a cafe in the Baghdad’s upper-class Karrada neighborhood.

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