US should use influence to help secure freedom of missing Iraq academic, sister says

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States should use its influence to help secure the freedom of a Russian-Israeli scholar in…

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States should use its influence to help secure the freedom of a Russian-Israeli Princeton University scholar who disappeared in Iraq nearly six months ago and is believed to be in militia custody supported by Iran and considered by Washington. as a terrorist group, his sister said Wednesday.

“The current level of pressure is not satisfactory. It’s just not enough,” Emma Tsurkov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “My sister is languishing in the hands of this terrorist organization. And it’s been almost six months.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a 36-year-old doctoral student whose work focuses on the Middle East and specifically Syria, disappeared in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in March while carrying out research.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said she was held by the Shiite group Kataeb Hezbollah or Hezbollah Brigades, whose leader and founder died in the January 2020 U.S. airstrike that also killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani , commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of Tehran’s regional military alliances. The Hezbollah group maintains close ties with the Iraqi government.

Emma Tsurkov is working to draw attention to her sister’s plight, meeting this week in Washington with the State Department and government officials from Israel and Russia. She had hoped to have a separate meeting at the Iraqi embassy, ​​but said the officials there “blew me away.” The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I really never wanted to do any of that. But I realized that everyone was interested, but no one would do anything to bring her home,” said Emma Tsurkov, 35, a sociology researcher at Stanford University. “And everyone just hopes that someone else does it and passes the buck.” But ultimately, I don’t see anything being done to bring my sister back.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is not a U.S. citizen, which limits the tools available to the U.S. government and the direct ability of Washington officials to secure her release. But Emma Tsurkov says the U.S. government still wields considerable influence given that her sister has significant ties to the United States as a “graduate student at a U.S. institution approved and funded for research.”

She said she argued to a State Department official in a meeting Tuesday that the U.S. government’s massive financial support for Iraq gives it leverage it should use. Washington provides significant military aid to Iraq as part of a common interest in ensuring the country’s security, confronting the Islamic State group and preventing Iran from gaining more influence in the country.

At the heart of anti-IS efforts is the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group for a number of Iranian-backed militias, including Kataeb Hezbollah, the group suspected of kidnapping Tsurkov.

A State Department spokesperson had no immediate answer on the Tsurkov case when asked about it during a press briefing Wednesday.

Emma Tsurkov is also expected to meet this week with Princeton officials, who she says has not expressed enough support for her sister.

In a statement, Princeton spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said the university was “deeply concerned” about Elizabeth Tsurkov’s well-being and called her “a valued member of the university community.” He said that upon learning of her disappearance, the school immediately contacted U.S. and Israeli government officials.

“Elizabeth’s family subsequently requested that the University not involve government officials in the interest of keeping the matter confidential,” he said. “Once the situation became public, the University communicated and continues to communicate with relevant government officials and experts to understand how we can best support Elizabeth’s safe return to her family and her studies at Princeton. “

The sisters, daughters of dissidents, were born a year apart in the former Soviet Union and moved with their families as young girls to Israel. They are so close that they texted daily while Elizabeth Tsurkov was in Baghdad.

Emma Tsurkov said she knew something was wrong because her sister was always quick to respond to text photos of her son, Elizabeth Tsurkov’s only nephew.

” She did not answer. And I worry after a few hours, but then when it hits 12,” she said.

Elizabeth Tsurkov’s last post on Twitter, now known as X, was on March 21, when she circulated a photo of pro-Kurdistan protesters in Syria. Emma Tsurkov said she understood that her sister had gone to a cafe in Baghdad’s central Karradah district and had not returned. A few days earlier, Elizabeth Tsurkov had undergone spinal cord surgery in Iraq.

Today, she said, the sisters face the prospect of being separated during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and a holiday the family always commemorates together.

“It’s,” she said, “the kind of nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”


AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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