At about 1 a.m. today, a U.S. officer knocked on the door of the family home in Ann Arbor, Mich., with news that Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie was confirmed dead, though he had no details yet on how or when he died, said Entifadh Qanbar, Altaie's uncle and a close aide to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. Altaie was the last soldier unaccounted for in Iraq.
Altaei's brother, Hathal Altaei, speaking by phone from his parents' home, said the military had confirmed his brother's identity through a DNA test.
"The officer came eight hours ago and told us," Hathal Altaie said. "We've been waiting for five years, suffering, not knowing if he's alive or dead. This was not the news we wanted, of course, but it's better than staying like that, without ever knowing what happened to him."
“There is closure now, but we still want to know: Was he killed, or did he die by natural causes in the hands of the group?” Qanbar said, noting that his nephew had suffered kidney problems that could’ve worsened during his time as a hostage.
In 2006, gunmen abducted Altaie, an Iraqi-born reservist who was 41 at the time, after he’d sneaked out of the Green Zone in Baghdad to visit his new Iraqi wife. Family members had warned him that it was too dangerous — as well as against military rules — but Altaie was in love with his bride, Israa Sultan, and wanted to spend an Islamic holiday with her off base, Qanbar said.
“All I heard was a woman screaming on the phone,” he said, recalling the phone call from Altaie’s wife seconds after his capture from a busy Baghdad street in daylight. “She said, ‘They just took Ahmed right in front of me! They put him in a car and drove away.' ”
In the days after he went missing, Stars and Stripes newspaper has reported, “3,000 coalition soldiers conducted more than 50 raids to find their comrade.” At least one soldier was killed; others were wounded in the search for Altaie.
Altaie’s official status was “missing-captured” until the Iraqi government turned over his remains to U.S. officials on Feb. 22, Qanbar said. The family was notified three days later, apparently after forensics tests confirmed his identity.
Several arrests were made in connection to the case, but which group captured Altaie was never ascertained for certain. Qanbar and U.S. officials have said they believed the abduction was the work of a splinter group from the movement loyal to the militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Qanbar, who broke into tears while speaking by phone from Beirut, acknowledged that his nephew had made a “huge mistake” by sneaking off base, but said there was no reasoning with him. Altaie, he said, was too trusting of Iraqi strangers based on nostalgia for his homeland and his eagerness to help rebuild Iraq after the war.
“The military brought him into Iraq as a translator, mainly, and he really came for the cause,” Qanbar said. “He was like any Arab American who grows up dreaming of the home country. He left Iraq when he was 12 and came back to help.”