JERUSALEM (AP) — A dual Israeli-Russian academic who has been missing in Iraq for months is being held by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the office of Israel’s prime minister said Wednesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Elizabeth Tsurkov, who disappeared in late March, is still alive “and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being.”
Netanyahu said Tsurkov is being held by the Shiite group Kataeb Hezbollah or Hezbollah Brigades, a powerful Iran-backed group that the U.S. government listed as a terrorist organization in 2009. The group’s leader and founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed in an American airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport in January 2020 along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional military alliances.
Tsurkov, whose work focuses on the Middle East, and specifically war-torn Syria, is an expert on regional affairs and has been widely quoted over the years by international media. Tsurkov last tweeted on March 21.
She is a fellow at the Washington-based think tank New Lines Institute. Her colleague Hassan Hassan, editor in chief of New Lines Magazine, said co-workers were notified of her kidnapping in Iraq on March 29. Hassan told The Associated Press that some of her colleagues had been in touch with her just days before she went missing.
“We could not believe the news, knowing what Iraq is like for any scholar or researcher in recent years,” he said. “But there is hope that she will be released through negotiations.”
Hassan said they they have reached out to American and foreign officials, including at Princeton University where Tsurkov is pursuing her doctorate, for assistance. He added that they “called on the United States government to be involved in securing her release, despite her not being a U.S. national.”
Netanyahu said Tsurkov is an academic who visited Iraq on her Russian passport, “at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University.”
Tsurkov could not have used her Israeli passport to enter Iraq as the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
A senior official from Kataeb Hezbollah declined to comment on the matter.
Iran emerged as a major power broker in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, supporting Shiite groups and militias that have enjoyed wide influence in the country ever since.
There has been no official comment from Iraq since Tsurkov went missing. Days after her disappearance, a local website reported that an Iranian citizen who was involved in her kidnapping was detained by Iraqi authorities. It said the woman was kidnapped from Baghdad’s central neighborhood of Karradah and that Iran’s embassy in the Iraqi capital was pressing for the man’s release and to have him deported to Iran.
Some Iraqi activists posted a copy of a passport of an Iranian man at the time, claiming that he was involved in the kidnapping.
Netanyahu’s office said Tsurkov’s case is being handled by the “relevant parties in the State of Israel out of concern for Elizabeth Tsurkov’s security and well-being.”
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, citing the country’s hostile rhetoric, support for militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and its suspected nuclear program. Iran denies Western allegations that it is pursuing a nuclear bomb.
Days before Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Soleimani were killed, U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Syria killed 25 Kataeb Hezbollah members. The U.S. said at the time that the December 2019 strike was a retaliation for a rocket attack days earleir that killed an American contractor at an Iraqi military base that it blamed on the group.
Mroue and Chehayeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Boston.