They search if someone's missing in Iraq

The kidnapping of a civilian contractor working for the American military in Iraq served as just the latest reminder of the danger of doing business in the country.

But a group of 19 service members and civilians – including soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord – has the job of finding and recovering Issa T. Salomi and other service members and contractors missing throughout Iraq. Salomi’s kidnapping by an Iranian-backed group called the League of the Righteous was confirmed by the Pentagon on Saturday. He was last seen in Baghdad on Jan. 23.

It was the first kidnapping of an American since 2008, according to the Washington Post. The threat, though, remains high: Many units will review procedures to avoid being captured during pre-mission briefings.

“The search never stops,” Lt. Col. Patrick Wright, the outgoing director of the U.S. Forces-Iraq personnel recovery division, said during an interview last month from Baghdad’s Al Faw Palace, the headquarters of the American military in Iraq. “If someone’s missing, someone’s looking for them.”

Twenty-one people, including Salomi, are on the list of the missing throughout Iraq. The search is continuing for 18 of them. The others are in Iranian custody – their families say the three were hiking in northern Iraq.

And in a sign of the evolution of modern warfare, only two of the missing are American service members. The rest are Iraqi American citizens or, more commonly, contractors working for the U.S. military.

The personnel recovery division also seeks non-Americans if the missing person’s government contacts the American embassy for help, such as the four South African security contractors who went missing in Baghdad in 2006.

Most of the search work is performed by troops on the ground, who collect tips from locals and elected officials. The task force uses diplomatic, military and intelligence assets to develop the cases. Each case has an analyst assigned to it who refines information.

“We use all of the assets available to search,” said Wright, a 45-year-old Gig Harbor resident. “It’s a full-spectrum operation.”

And even though many have been missing for years, Wright said the assumption is that the missing are alive until they’re recovered.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, is briefed regularly about search operations. Posters with names and faces of the missing can be found across Iraq, and similar images are used as screen savers on official computers throughout the country. And personnel recovery officials spotlight a different case each week before Odierno.

Twenty-four people were on the missing list when I Corps arrived in April to run daily American military operations across Iraq. And the most high-profile recovery made during the unit’s tenure in Iraq was in August, when Marines discovered the remains of Navy Capt. Scott Speicher, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot who was shot down during the 1991 Gulf War.

The breakthrough came after a tip from local Iraqis, who said Bedouins buried the aviator shortly after he crashed in Anbar province.

The announcement of any recovery is an emotional event, replete with high-fives and tears of joy.

“Finding someone is big,” Wright said. “It’s huge. It makes it all worth it.”

scott.fontaine@ thenewstribune.com