The three Americans kidnapped in Baghdad by Shiite militia last month have been released unharmed, following successful negotiations for their release by the Iraqi government.
“The exact circumstances of their release were not immediately clear, including whether any money was paid or prisoners were released in exchange,” writes the New York Times. “Officials stressed that there had been no direct negotiations between the United States and the group that abducted the men.”
The Times also gives credit to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, once a leader in the bloody anti-American insurgency: “The abductors were not believed to be under Mr. Sadr’s control, but the cleric was able to use his contacts to mediate and win their release.”
The NYT delicately notes that many of these militias are under the control of Iran, and the three Americans were kidnapped in Baghdad right around the same time Iran was working out a prisoner exchange with the United States. In fact, U.S. officials seem fairly confident the Baghdad kidnappers had links to Iran, although the spontaneous nature of the abduction is offered as evidence the kidnappers had “local motives.”
Reuters cites analysts who think the kidnapping was intended to “embarrass and weaken” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, “who is trying to balance Iraq’s relations with rival powers Iran and the United States.” That does not sound like a purely “local motive,” although Abadi has said he doubts there was direct Iranian involvement in the crime.
“We sincerely appreciate the assistance provided by the government of Iraq, and its whole-of-government effort to bring about the safe release of these individuals,” said the State Department on Tuesday, as quoted by CNN. “Specifically, we express our gratitude to the Iraqi Security Forces, and in particular the Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, for their role in achieving this outcome.”
It was reported in late January that the White House asked for Iran’s help with freeing the hostages, but it is not clear from current reporting if Tehran played any role at all in securing their release.