BAGHDAD - The U.S. soldier was out of uniform when he sneaked off base on a motorcycle to visit his Iraqi wife in central Baghdad. The militiamen hiding nearby weren't fooled. They were seen seizing him at gunpoint.
More than four years later, Ahmed Kousay al-Taie, a resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., who was born in Iraq, is the only American service member still missing here. His family fears he will never be found.
At the twilight of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, a unit is dedicated to searching for al-Taie and 12 missing civilians, including seven Americans. Its mission is a key piece of unfinished business for the U.S. as it prepares to withdraw its remaining troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
Kidnappings for ransom or political motives, mostly of Iraqis but also many foreigners, were common as the insurgency gained steam after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The February 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque by Sunnis caused retaliatory bloodshed to spiral. Death squads roamed the streets.
Many cases solved
Many cases have been resolved as security has improved. Tips are now far more forthcoming, and U.S. and Iraqi troops have access to former no-go zones. But the fate of al-Taie and others who vanished is unknown.
Al-Taie, an Army interpreter, was kidnapped on Oct. 23, 2006. About a week later, a family member received a ransom demand, the U.S. military told The Associated Press.
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 al-Taie but he demanded solid evidence that al-Taie, who was 41 at the time, was alive and well, the military said in an e-mail.
Al-Taie's uncle, Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for a controversial Iraqi politician, denied that any ransom demand had been made but described for the AP a web of negotiations with intermediaries as he pursued leads through the years. The missing soldier 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.
"Everyone loved ahmed"
Al-Taie had grown up in Iraq but fled the country with his family when he was a teenager. They eventually settled in the Michigan college town of Ann Arbor. He dreamed of becoming a pilot but wasn't good at school. The ouster of Saddam Hussein gave him new focus.
"Everybody loved Ahmed. He had a smooth and cheerful personality," Qanbar said. "He had lots of job offers."
Al-Taie met his wife during a trip to Iraq shortly Saddam fell. At the time, he was still a civilian. His wife now lives in Michigan but declined to be interviewed because she fears for her family back home.
In December 2004, al-Taie joined an Army reserve program for native speakers of Arabic and other strategic languages. He was sent to Iraq in November 2005 and was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad and was kidnapped the following year.
His in-laws say he often met secretly with his wife at her family's home despite warnings that he was in danger of being attacked by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
It was during one of those visits that al-Taie 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 mainly Shiite neighborhood of 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," recalled al-Taie's sister-in-law, Shaimaa Abdul-Sattar, who saw the abduction.
Al-Taie remained calm as he was taken away in a car.
"He just kept saying 'I have trust in the Mahdi Army,' " Shaimaa said.
As an American soldier and a Sunni Muslim, al-Taie 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 manhunt.
Within days, the military arrested four of the kidnappers. But by then, al-Taie had already been handed off to another group.
In the meantime, the military promoted al-Taie in absentia from specialist to staff sergeant. He became the only military service member still missing in Iraq after the 2009 discovery of the remains of Navy pilot Scott Speicher, shot down 18 years earlier, on the first night of the Gulf War.
12 others sought
The search effort is now in the hands of the military's Personnel Recovery Division, a group of 20 people overseen by Col. Michael Infanti of Stafford, Va.
Besides al-Taie, the Personnel Recovery Division is also looking for seven other Americans, four South Africans and a British man.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Jimmy Smith, the division's deputy director, said nine American abductees, including three who were still alive, have been recovered in Iraq since 2004.