By Hannah Allam McClatchy Newspapers
BEIRUT — The U.S. military has recovered the remains of the last U.S. service member missing in Iraq, ending a nearly six-year ordeal involving shadowy militants and a tragic love story, his family said Sunday.
About 1 a.m. Sunday, a U.S. officer knocked on the door of the family home in Ann Arbor, Mich., with news that Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaei was confirmed dead. The officer had no details yet on how or when he died, said Entifadh Qanbar, Altaei’s uncle and an aide to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. Altaei was the last U.S. soldier unaccounted for in Iraq.
Altaei’s brother, Hathal Altaei said the military had confirmed his brother’s identity through a DNA test.
“The officer came eight hours ago and told us,” Altaei said. “We’ve been waiting for five years, suffering, not knowing if he’s alive or dead. This was not the news we wanted, of course, but it’s better than staying like that, without ever knowing what happened to him.”
“There is closure now, but we still want to know: Was he killed, or did he die by natural causes in the hands of the group?” Qanbar said, noting that his nephew had kidney problems that could have worsened during his time as a hostage.
Hathal Altaei said the military hadn’t yet released the remains to the family because no decision had been made yet on whether to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery or near his family’s home in Michigan.
In 2006, gunmen abducted Altaei, an Iraqi-born reservist who was 41 at the time, after he sneaked out of the Green Zone in Baghdad to visit his new Iraqi wife.
In the days after he went missing, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported, at east one soldier was killed; others were wounded in the search for Altaei.
Altaei’s official status was “missing-captured” until the Iraqi government turned over his remains to U.S. officials on Feb. 22, Qanbar said. The family was notified three days later, apparently after forensics tests at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware confirmed his identity.
Several arrests were made in connection to the case, but which group captured Altaei was never determined for certain. Qanbar and U.S. officials have said they believed the abduction was the work of a splinter group from the movement loyal to the militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
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Family members had warned Altaei that leaving the Green Zone was too dangerous — as well as against military rules — but he was in love with his bride, Israa Sultan, and wanted to spend an Islamic holiday with her off base, Qanbar said.
“All I heard was a woman screaming on the phone,” he said, recalling the phone call from Altaei’s wife seconds after his capture from a busy Baghdad street in daylight. “She said, ‘They just took Ahmed right in front of me! They put him in a car and drove away.’”
Qanbar acknowledged that his nephew had made a “huge mistake” by sneaking off base, but he said there was no reasoning with him. Altaei, he said, was too trusting of Iraqi strangers based on nostalgia for his homeland and his eagerness to help rebuild Iraq after the war.
“The military brought him into Iraq as a translator, mainly, and he really came for the cause,” Qanbar said. “He was like any Arab American who grows up dreaming of the home country. He left Iraq when he was 12 and came back to help.”
Qanbar said Altaei “fell in love with the first girl he met” upon arriving in Iraq. Sultan was introduced to him by mutual friends, but she lived outside the heavily fortified Green Zone where Altaei was stationed, so he sneaked off base frequently to court her and, eventually, to ask permission for marriage.
“He did it constantly and we had several fights about it,” Qanbar said.
After a wedding ceremony in Baghdad, he said, Altaei used his leave to take his bride on a honeymoon to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. He was abducted soon after the couple returned to Iraq, Qanbar said, when he was en route to bring lamb to his wife’s home for a religious feast.
Family members said they weren’t sure which group initially seized Altaei, apparently after observing his pattern of slipping off base to visit his wife.
In February 2007, a short video with no sound showed Altaei alive; the clip was posted to a website used by Shiite militants. The group claiming to hold him was a previously unknown band of militants. The hostage-takers sent a few emails from Altaei’s personal account demanding the release of prisoners in exchange for Altaei’s freedom, Qanbar said, but never specified which prisoners and abruptly ceased contact.
Qanbar said the investigation focused on Asaib Ahl al Haq, whose name translates as “League of the Righteous,” a militant group that’s claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly attacks on American, British and Polish targets in Iraq. The league is one of the best known of the so-called “special groups,” allegedly Iranian-backed Shiite militias that broke from Sadr’s Mahdi Army and continued fighting even after other Shiite militants had agreed to a ceasefire.
Qanbar, who was based in Iraq at the time and worked closely with investigators from the FBI and the military, said spirits soared with the arrest in March 2007 of Asaib Ahl al Haq’s notorious leaer, Qais al Khazali. Qanbar said U.S. investigators called him back from a trip to Abu Dhabi to meet with Khazali, who was in U.S. custody.
Guards brought him in, Qanbar said, but Khazali’s remarks implied that it was too late for his intervention in Altaei’s case, and it seemed that he’d been transferred to another group.
“We think he was alive at least until the end of 2008,” Qanbar said.