Left Behind: The last U.S. service member still missing in action in Iraq

Ahmed Altaie, seen in a family video.
U.S. Army Sgt. Altaie

President Obama declared the end of combat missions in Iraq during an Oval Office address in August, saying the the U.S. had met it’s obligation in that country.

But one American soldier remains missing in action, and his family is still waiting for answers.

War News Radio’s Jeremy Rapaport-Stein spoke with relatives in both countries.




US Army Sgt. Ahmed Altaie had left the Green Zone to visit his new Iraqi wife in Baghdad when he was abducted. Several hours later, his ex-wife and close friend, Linda Racey, heard the news.

Ms. RACEY: His mother had called me at about 1130 at night on the night of October 23 of 2006, I received a telephone call and his mother was hysterical, that her son, it was told that her son was kidnapped.

Sgt. Altaie, an Iraqi-American translator from Ann Arbor Michigan, was abducted in Baghdad sometime after 430 p.m. on that Monday afternoon. Four years later, he remains missing, and many questions, including what will happen in light of the end of combat missions in Iraq, remain unanswered. One of these questions is how Sgt. Altaie was able to leave the Green Zone, the headquarters of US military operations in Iraq.

Ms. RACEY: He went to go visit his wife thinking he could blend in with the rest of the Iraqi population and as soon as he arrived there at the time they had both agreed that he would both be there, he didn’t even pull up to her front on the street in the Karrada district of Iraq, which is where she lives in Karrada and the kidnappers had thrown him into the back of the vehicle right at that moment.

According to an Associated Press report at the time, four men dressed all in black – except for white masks covering their faces – dragged Altaie from the home of his in-law’s, handcuffed him, threw him in the back of their car, and drove off.

The fact that this happened while Sgt. Altaie was outside the Green Zone on personal business is the source of some surprise and confusion. According to Steve Valley, a former Green Zone public information officer and author of “Inside the Fortress: A Soldier’s Life in the Green Zone,” the idea of a soldier getting out to visit his wife seems strange.

Mr. VALLEY: When I was there, there was virtually no way unless you were deceiving someone you could get out of the Green Zone, nor any other military forward operating base.

But according to Valley, deceiving the the extensive American security at the Green Zone is a nearly impossible task.

Mr. VALLEY: It would be extremely difficult. First of all, you have local Iraqis working the gates for civilians and that’s another checkpoint another level of security where they ask for IDs and then you also have the American military who are the main keepers of the Green Zone asking for IDs.

Valley said that when soldiers leave the Green Zone, they don’t leave on foot.

Mr. VALLEY: You were going into the red zone which was like the OK Corral. I mean, you were locked and loaded, you were driving in armored up vehicles, you had full battle rattle on, your cargo pockets were filled with rounds of ammunition, the red zone was not a safe area so it wasn’t taken lightly to implement different levels of security. So this certainly was not something easy that this soldier supposedly had done. if he did it that way it was well planned and well thought out.

If Sgt. Altaie had been caught leaving the Green Zone without authorization, there would be disciplinary consequences.

Mr. VALLEY: That would probably be a non judicial punishment, what’s commonly referred to as an article 15. That’s handled at the unit level, between the immediate chain of command. And again, I mean, that’s not a definitive answer. If he came out and said he snuck off base, was off visiting locals, the unit command, of course, could refer that to a JAG officer and they could proceed with court marshal proceedings.

Despite the fact that his actions may have warranted disciplinary action were he not kidnapped, Ahmed Altaie was promoted from a specialist to a sergeant in the wake of his abduction. The press releases at the time did not detail how it came to be that a soldier was outside the Green Zone on personal business.

Another missing link in the story is who took Sgt. Altaie to begin with. After he was abducted, the Army launched a massive search to find Sgt. Altaie, the effort, however, was unsuccessful. At first, all signs pointed to the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia created by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The area in which Sgt. Altaie was kidnapped is dominated by the militia group, and a video of Sgt. Altaie was posted to a pro-Sadr website in 2007, intended to prove that he was still alive.

Entifadh Qanbar, Ahmed Altaie’s uncle and a prominent Iraqi politician, was involved in the effort to try and find him. Qanbar says that he’s not convinced.

Mr. QANBAR: Well, the story is mixed up. I mean, you have to understand that Mahdi army is not a disciplined, clear organization. It’s basically an army of volunteers. That can be very fluid and there’s no clear structure for this army. the Mahdi Army themselves, people I know from the Mahdi army have disowned them, and they said they have been not these part of the Mahdi army, other people say no they were not part of the Mahdi army but these other Shia groups. That was the main problem for Ahmed. It was not very clear who has gotten him and everybody says we know of him but we are not the party or entity which has him and that has a lot to do with the chaotic nature of these militias.

Part of the problem of finding where Sgt. Altaie is and figuring out who was responsible for his kidnapping is that the story of the abduction goes beyond the people who grabbed him off the streets.

Mr. QANBAR: The people who executed the kidnapping they have been arrested and they are in prison. I even made an appeal to the court to lighten their sentence because the punishment for kidnapping in Iraq is execution and I tried to convince the court to reduce their sentence to life in prison or something less than execution in return for their cooperation to find Ahmed. I think they did cooperate, but they’ve been in prison so long, they’ve lost touch with his whereabouts.

Ahmed Altaie has been gone for over four years now. From the looks of it, we still don’t precisely know who was responsible for his abduction, where he is now, or how he managed to leave the heavily fortified Green Zone. What is certain is that his family and friends would like to see the story come to an end.

Mr. QANBAR: 13.41 I myself wish to see Mr. Altaie back alive returned to his family, and to his mother and father. But I also would like to see a closure to this catastrophe and this miserable days and I will accept whatever God’s will, even if he’s dead, to bring closure to this situation. But I also, naturally I will not believe he is dead until one-hundred percent proof of his death, and if he is alive it would be a serious miracle.

While reporting this story, War News Radio contacted multiple military and government sources including the Army Office of Public Affairs, the US embassy in Iraq, and the Michigan National guard. All requests for information were either declined, delayed, or referred to a non-responsive third party.

According to the last press release concerning this case on the Department of Defense web site: “Efforts continue to obtain the successful and safe return of Altaie.” That was December 14, 2006.

For War News Radio, I’m Jeremy Rapaport-Stein