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Army IDs remains of last missing GI in Iraq

Feb. 26, 2012 - 02:19PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 26, 2012 - 02:19PM  |  
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An undated photo shows Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Kousay Altaie, who was kidnapped in October 2006. The military says it has identified Altaie's remains at the military's mortuary in Dover, Del.
An undated photo shows Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Kousay Altaie, who was kidnapped in October 2006. The military says it has identified Altaie's remains at the military's mortuary in Dover, Del. (Altaie family via AP)
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BAGHDAD — The U.S military announced Sunday that it has recovered the remains of the last American service member who was unaccounted for in Iraq, an Army interpreter seized by gunmen after sneaking off base to visit his Iraqi wife in Baghdad during the height of the insurgency.

The remains of Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie, who was 41 when militiamen seized him on Oct. 23, 2006, were positively identified at the military's mortuary in Dover, Del., the Army said in a statement released Sunday. Army officials said they had no further details about the circumstances surrounding his death or the discovery of his remains.

Altaie's brother, Hathal Altaie, told The Associated Press the military officer who visited the family's home to inform them about the remains said they are still in Dover, but that he didn't know the circumstances surrounding his brother's death.

"We have no information right now, not even how the body looks like or when they're going to release him," Hathal Altaie said by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., where the family settled after leaving Iraq for the U.S. when his brother was still a teenager.

Their uncle, Entifadh Qanbar, said he was told by the Army major who informed the family in Ann Arbor that the remains were received at Dover on Feb. 22.

"I asked if it was an accident or if he was killed, and he said they didn't know, that they are investigating," Qanbar said by phone from Beirut, where he lives. "He said he had the same questions that I have."

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not respond to a request for comment late Sunday.

Family members say that like many Iraqi exiles, Ahmed Altaie was eager to help his native land rebuild after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein.

He met his wife during a trip to Iraq shortly after Saddam fell, while he was still a civilian, and in December 2004 he joined an Army reserve program for native speakers of Arabic and other strategic languages. He was deployed to Iraq in November 2005 and was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad until he was kidnapped the following year.

At the time he was seized, kidnappings for ransom or political motives, mostly of Iraqis but also many foreigners, were common. The February 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque by Sunni insurgents caused retaliatory bloodshed to spiral, and death squads roamed the streets.

Altaie's in-laws say he often met secretly with his wife at her family's home despite warnings that he was in danger of being kidnapped.

It was during one of those visits that Altaie disappeared. Masked gunmen hiding in an abandoned Saddam-era army building seized him as he went to find his wife at her uncle's house, less than two blocks away in the Karradah.

"A neighbor saw the gunmen and went to my family and informed them. My parents, brothers and sisters all came at once and pleaded with them to let him go," Altaie's sister-in-law Shaimaa Abdul-Sattar, who witnessed the abduction, told the AP during an interview in 2010 at her Baghdad apartment.

Altaie remained calm as he was led into a waiting car and whisked away.

As an American soldier and a Sunni Muslim, Altaie faced a double risk when he left the protection of his base inside the Green Zone, a well-guarded area that houses the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and the parliament.

American commanders immediately launched a massive manhunt, locking down Karradah and Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in eastern Baghdad.

Within days, the military arrested four of the kidnappers. But by then, Altaie had already been handed off to another group and transported to the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, according to people familiar with the case.

About a week after his abduction, a family member received a ransom demand, the U.S. military previously told the AP.

The relative then met with members of the group behind the kidnapping. They showed him a grainy video on a handheld device of a man they claimed was Altaie but he demanded solid evidence that Altaie, who was 41 at the time, was alive and well.

Qanbar, Altaie's uncle, denied during a previous interview that any ransom demand had been made, but he described for the AP a web of negotiations with a number of intermediaries as he continued to pursue leads through the years. Altaie was last seen four months after his abduction in a video posted on the Internet by a Shiite militant faction called Ahl al-Bayt Brigades.

Altaie was the last American service member unaccounted for, but several civilians, including Americans who were participating in the efforts to rebuild Iraq, are still missing.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this report.

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