The Israeli-Russian academic researcher believed to have been abducted in Iraq by a powerful radical Shiite group backed by Iran was reportedly warned a number of times against trips to the country amid fears for her safety.
In an unsourced report Thursday evening, Israel’s Channel 12 news said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a 36-year-old Israeli Middle East analyst who is said to have entered Iraq late last year and disappeared sometime in March, was given personal warnings in recent months about travelling to Iraq following repeated stays in the country.
An Israeli government official confirmed on Wednesday that Tsurkov had made previous trips to Iraq, which Israel considers an enemy country. (The New York Times quoted Iraqi officials saying she had made more than 10 visits.) According to Israeli law, it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter enemy countries, even on a foreign passport.
Tsurkov was visiting Iraq for research work on Iran-backed factions in the country, particularly the movement of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr. A PhD candidate at Princeton, she had previously conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries in the region, according to her website.
Without attributing the information, Channel 12 said former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, also the former head of Iraqi intelligence, sent a message to Washington and Moscow in recent months telling them that Tsurkov’s foreign nationalities, Russian and Israeli, and her work were “endangering her.”
A Western diplomat stationed in Iraq said that Tsurkov had arrived in Baghdad “at the beginning of December 2022.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday made public news of her abduction and accused Kataeb Hezbollah, a powerful faction of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) made up of Iran-backed former paramilitaries that were integrated into the Iraqi security forces, of holding Tsurkov.
Netanyahu’s office warned Iraq that it holds the country “responsible for her fate and safety.” According to an Iraqi intelligence source, Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad “at the beginning of Ramadan,” the Muslim fasting month which this year started on March 23. She was “leaving the Ridha Alwan cafe” in the capital’s Karada neighbourhood, the New York Times reported, an area frequented by Westerners, “full of coffee shops, clothing stores, and markets.”
Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that an Iraqi official who had been in touch with Tsurkov said she was abducted at her apartment in Karada, and that her roommate, an Iraqi researcher, was also taken. The unnamed roommate was released two weeks after the abduction and left Iraq shortly after, according to the report, which added that she recently returned.
Days after Tsurkov’s disappearance, a local Iraqi website reported that an Iranian citizen who was involved in her kidnapping had been detained by Iraqi authorities. The website claimed that Iran’s embassy in Baghdad was pressing for the man’s release and deportation to Iran.
According to the Kan report, the Iraqi source said he and others contacted Iraqi intelligence some two months ago regarding Tsurkov before her disappearance was widely known.
“We were told that she is fine,” he said, “and that she is no longer in Iraq but has returned to the United States. They lied to us,” said the source, who according to Kan is a close associate of Al-Kadhimi, the former Iraqi premier who served from 2020-2022 and was widely seen as a US ally.
Current Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani is seen as more closely aligned with Iran. According to the official speaking to Kan, Tsurkov was initially held by Iraqi intelligence and was then transferred to Kataeb Hezbollah. The Iranians, according to the official, are involved in the abduction.
Kataeb Hezbollah, a distinct entity from Lebanese Hezbollah, issued an ambiguous statement on Thursday that implied it was not involved in Tsurkov’s disappearance and said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of “Zionist hostages or hostages” in the country.
There has been no official comment from Iraq since Tsurkov went missing. Netanyahu’s office said Tsurkov had entered Iraq “on her Russian passport at her initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US.”
In a briefing with Israeli reporters on Wednesday, a government official said that Tsurkov was alive and in good health and that the Israeli government has been in touch with her family. The official said Tsurkov was abducted because of her nationalities and denied rumours in Arabic media that she was operating on behalf of Israeli intelligence.
“She is absolutely not a member of the Mossad, period, exclamation, underline,” the official said. On Thursday, the Kan report also aired footage from an Iraqi TV channel that claimed to show the “last-known” footage of Tsurkov before her abduction, obtained from security cameras at a coffee shop. Tsurkov is accompanied by an unidentified man, as seen in the clip.