With Withdrawal Looming, Trails Grow Cold for Americans Missing in Iraq
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BAGHDAD -- The last Americans missing in Iraq followed disparate paths to an uncertain fate. They arrived from Indiana and North Carolina, Chicago and Denver. They came out of a sense of duty, in search of a paycheck, or hoping to reclaim a homeland they had fled decades earlier.
But the lives of the eight men -- seven private contractors and the only American service member who remains unaccounted -- are a painful fragment of the war's legacy, a haunting piece of unfinished business that the military will leave behind when it withdraws by the end of the year.
"He called and said, 'I'm catching a plane tomorrow and I'll be home,' " said Jim Ake, whose son Jeffrey, a businessman from Indiana, vanished in 2005. "It didn't happen. That was the last we heard from him."
Like scores of other tasks -- running convoys, flying helicopters and tracking incoming mortar fire -- the military will soon leave the job of determining the fates of the missing largely to civilians. The military is still finalizing its plans, but the cases of the seven contractors are expected to be handed over to the American Embassy, with the missing soldier's case going to the United States Central Command.
"It's not like anybody's saying, 'O.K., we're done, let's forget these guys,' " said Col. Michael Infanti, who supervised a unit that searches for the missing. "It ain't happening."
Even so, hope has drifted into a nagging uncertainty about the men's fates, leaving families afraid that they will never find answers. Relatives who once received daily updates from F.B.I. agents and diplomats now go months without hearing from investigators. When they do, there are few breakthroughs. Years have passed without fresh leads, videos or phone calls from their kidnappers.
"We don't know if he's dead or alive," said Kazwan Elias, whose brother, Aban, an Iraqi-American engineer from Denver, was kidnapped seven years ago. "We don't know if they beheaded him or he's in a jail somewhere. We just don't know."
The military has declared other kidnapping victims dead, even without recovering their bodies, and some family members have bowed to what seems like that inevitable conclusion. Others, though, hang their hopes on the transom between an administrative classification of "missing" and "deceased."
In a fifth-floor Baghdad apartment overlooking the American Embassy and the heavily secured Green Zone, Sabriya Mahdi Naama clutches the belief that her husband, Abbas Kareem Naama, who was known as Tim, is alive after more than five years missing.
"I still believe he's somewhere," Ms. Naama said. "I am sure."
Mr. Naama was a colonel in Saddam Hussein's army who fled Iraq with his family in 1991, settling in San Diego. They became naturalized American citizens and supported Mr. Hussein's ouster.
Mr. Naama met with Pentagon officials before the war, his family said, and his grown daughter wrote op-ed articles calling for the liberation of Iraq's people.
In 2003, he returned to Iraq on the heels of the American Army. After a brief stint with the Coalition Provisional Authority, Mr. Naama, who was also a pharmacist, went to work with the health office of Iraq's Defense Ministry, his family said.
He was taken one morning in 2005 as he left home to buy a newspaper. He was 58.
Three months later, the family received a phone call demanding $150,000 in ransom. They did not know who the callers were -- Al Qaeda? The Shiite militias from the slums of Sadr City? -- or if they were even the real kidnappers. But the family decided to pay them anyway, dropping off the money near an old soda factory.
Numerically speaking, the missing Americans -- Jeffrey Ake, Aban Elias, Abbas Kareem Naama, Neenus Khoshaba, Bob Hamze, Dean Sadek, Hussain al-Zurufi and Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie -- are little more than a footnote in Iraq. Their number pales in comparison to the thousands of Iraqis who disappeared during the bloodletting following the United States invasion. More than 10,000 Iraqis were kidnapped by criminal gangs, Sunni extremist groups and Shiite militias during the bloodiest years of sectarian fighting.
Iraq remains battered by the losses. Parents, siblings and children still line up at morgues to page through photo albums of the nameless dead. Farmers, construction workers and government investigators regularly unearth mass graves filled with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of bodies. There is even a television show devoted to tracking down the vanished.
The only American service member among the missing is Sergeant Altaie, whose family fled Iraq when he was 9 years old and settled in Ann Arbor, Mich. Some combination of homesickness and a love for both the United States and Iraq spurred him to join the Army in 2004, and he deployed to Baghdad the next year.
He frequently went "outside the wire" of the military bases to meet his wife, whom he had met on an earlier trip to Baghdad, family members said. One night in October 2006, while visiting his wife's apartment in Baghdad's cosmopolitan Karada neighborhood, a gang grabbed him and shoved him into a car.
A few months later, Intifadh Qanbar, an uncle in Baghdad, said, a nine-second video of a man who appeared to be Sergeant Altaie was posted on a jihadist Web site. He looked thinner and haggard, and spoke into the camera. The video had no sound, so his last recorded words were a mystery.
"He never came back," said Mr. Qanbar, who has been closely involved in the case.
Mr. Qanbar, who works as an aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, parlayed his connections to try to find Sergeant Altaie. He said he spoke with detained insurgent leaders in jail and wrote letters to kidnappers, promising to forgo vengeance for any word on his nephew's whereabouts.
"I was so close to getting him out so many times," Mr. Qanbar said. "I could feel it."
But he said he kept losing the trail.
Jeffrey Ake, the Indiana businessman, had traveled safely through Iraq once before, and believed he could navigate its treacheries. In 2005, a day before he was to fly home from his second trip to Iraq, a group of men stormed the water-bottling plant where he had been working and whisked Mr. Ake away.
The next weeks were a frenzy of hope and fear.
Mr. Ake's captors called his family in La Porte, Ind., and -- with the F.B.I. listening in -- demanded a ransom of $2 million, Mr. Ake's father, Jim, said. The family asked for proof that Mr. Ake was alive, testing the kidnappers by asking for the name of a family dog. When they heard the answer -- "Gizmo" -- they knew.
"He was alive," Jim Ake said.
But when the military raced to the coordinates of the traced call, they found nothing more than a cellphone lying by the road.
The kidnappers stopped calling, and the trail went cold. As months, then years, passed, the family sold Jeffrey Ake's business, and the elder Mr. Ake said he turned his attention to helping his son's wife and four children, getting them to piano lessons and basketball games.
"You just do what has to be done," he said. "It's so sad that this could ever happen, but it happened. You have to get on with it."
First Published May 22, 2011 12:01 am