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US should use its influence to help win the freedom of a scholar missing in Iraq, her sister says

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States should use its influence to help win the freedom of a Russian-Israeli academic at Princeton University who went missing in Iraq nearly six months ago and is believed to be held by an Iran-backed militia regarded by Washington as a terrorist group, her sister said Wednesday.

“The current level of pressure is unsatisfactory. It’s just not enough,” Emma Tsurkov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “My sister is languishing at the hands of this terror 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 and Iraq, disappeared in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in March while doing research.

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

Emma Tsurkov is working to draw attention to her sister's fate, meeting in Washington this week with the State Department and Israeli and Russian government officials. She had hoped to have a separate meeting at the Iraqi Embassy but said officials there “blew me off.” The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I really never wanted to do any of this. But I realized that everyone is interested but no one is going to do anything to actually bring her home,” said Emma Tsurkov, 35, a sociology researcher at Stanford University. “And everyone is just hoping that someone else does, passing the buck. But at the end of the day, I don’t see anything being done to bring my sister back.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov is not a U.S. citizen, limiting the tools at the American government's disposal and the direct ability of Washington officials to secure her release. But Emma Tsurkov contends that the U.S. government still has substantial influence given that her sister has significant U.S. ties as a “graduate student in an American institution that is approved and funded for research."

She said she made the case to a State Department official during a meeting on Monday that the U.S. government's massive financial support to Iraq gives it leverage it should use. Washington gives significant military aid to Iraq as part of a shared interest in ensuring the country's security, confronting the Islamic State group and preventing Iran from gaining more influence in the country.

Central to the anti-IS efforts are the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group for a number of Iran-backed militias, including Kataeb Hezbollah, the group believed to have kidnapped Tsurkov.

A State Department spokesman had no immediate response to the Tsurkov case when asked about it at a briefing Wednesday.

Emma Tsurkov is also set to meet this week with officials at Princeton, which she says has not been vocal enough in its support of 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 after learning of her disappearance, the school immediately communicated with U.S. and Israeli government officials.

“Elizabeth’s family subsequently asked that the University not involve government officials in the interest of keeping the matter private,” he said. “Once the situation became public, the University has 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 family as young girls to Israel. They are so closely connected that they texted daily while Elizabeth Tsurkov was in Baghdad. Emma Tsurkov said she knew something was amiss because her sister would always quickly respond to text message photographs of her son, Elizabeth Tsurkov's only nephew.

“She didn’t respond. And I get worried after a few hours, but then when it reached 12 hours, I knew something must be wrong," she said. “There is no way that she would be okay, and not respond to that.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov's last post on Twitter, now known as X, was on March 21, when she recirculated a photograph of pro-Kurdistan protesters in Syria. Emma Tsurkov said it was her understanding that her sister went to a coffee shop in Baghdad’s central neighborhood of Karradah, days after having spinal cord surgery, and did not return.

Now, she said, the sisters are facing the prospect of being apart during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and a holiday the family always commemorated together.

“This is,” she said, “the type of nightmare I wish on no one.”

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