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Search goes on for missing Americans in Iraq

The U.S. soldier was out of uniform when he sneaked off base on a motorcycle to visit his Iraqi wife in central Baghdad. The militiamen hiding nearby weren't fooled. They were seen seizing him at gunpoint.

More than four years later, Ahmed Kousay al-Taie, a resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan who was born in Iraq, is the only American service member still missing here. His family fears he will never be found.

At the twilight of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, a unit is dedicated to searching for al-Taie and 12 missing civilians, including seven Americans. Its mission is a key piece of unfinished business for the U.S. as it prepares to withdraw its remaining troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Kidnappings for ransom or political motives, mostly of Iraqis but also many foreigners, were common as the insurgency gained steam after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The February 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque by Sunni insurgents caused retaliatory bloodshed to spiral. Death squads roamed the streets.

Many cases have been resolved as security has improved. Tips are now far more forthcoming, and U.S. and Iraqi troops have access to former no-go zones. But the fate of al-Taie and others who vanished remains unknown.

Al-Taie, an Army interpreter, was kidnapped on Oct. 23, 2006. About a week later, a family member received a ransom demand, the U.S. military told The Associated Press.

The relative then met with members of the group behind the kidnapping. They showed him a grainy video on a handheld device of a man they claimed was al-Taie but he demanded solid evidence that al-Taie, who was 41 at the time, was alive and well, the military said in an e-mail.

Al-Taie's uncle, Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for a controversial Iraqi politician, denied that any ransom demand had been made but described for the AP a web of negotiations with a number of intermediaries as he continued to pursue leads through the years. The missing soldier was last seen four months after his abduction, in a video posted on the Internet by a Shiite militant faction called Ahl al-Bayt Brigades.

Al-Taie had grown up in Iraq but fled the country with his family when he was a teenager. They eventually settled in the Michigan college town of Ann Arbor. He dreamed of becoming a pilot and wasn't good at school. The ouster of Saddam Hussein gave him new focus.

"Everybody loved Ahmed. He had a smooth and cheerful personality," Qanbar said. "He had lots of job offers. He had such a bright future ahead of him."

His mother, Nawal al-Taie, said her son, like many Iraqi exiles, was eager to help rebuild his homeland after the invasion. He met his wife during a trip to Iraq shortly Saddam fell. At the time, he was still a civilian. His wife now lives in Michigan but declined to be interviewed because she fears for her family back home.

In December 2004, al-Taie joined an Army reserve program for native speakers of Arabic and other strategic languages. He was deployed to Iraq in November 2005 and was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad until he was kidnapped the following year.

His in-laws say he often met secretly with his wife at her family's home despite warnings that he was in danger of being attacked by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It was during one of those visits that al-Taie disappeared. Masked gunmen hiding in an abandoned Saddam-era army building seized him as he went to find his wife at her uncle's house, less than two blocks away in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Karradah.

"A neighbor saw the gunmen and went to my family and informed them. My parents, brothers and sisters all came at once and pleaded with them to let him go," recalled al-Taie's sister-in-law, Shaimaa Abdul-Sattar, who witnessed the abduction.

Al-Taie remained calm as he was led into a waiting car and whisked away.

"He just kept saying 'I have trust in the Mahdi Army,'" Shaimaa said during an interview in the shabby two-room apartment she shares with about a dozen relatives in Baghdad.

As an American soldier and a Sunni Muslim, al-Taie faced a double risk when he left the protection of his base inside the Green Zone, a well-guarded area that houses the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and the parliament.

American commanders immediately launched a massive manhunt, locking down Karradah and the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City.

Within days, the military arrested four of the kidnappers. But by then, al-Taie had already been handed off to another group and transported to the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, according to people familiar with the case.

During a telephone interview from her home in Ann Arbor, Al-Taie's mother, Nawal, wept but said she hasn't given up hope.

"When my son joined the Army, I was happy because he was helping the military and helping the Iraqi people, too," she said. "I always, always remember him day and night ... and I'm waiting for him to come home."

In the meantime, the military promoted al-Taie in absentia from specialist to staff sergeant. He became the only military service member still missing in Iraq after the 2009 discovery of the remains of Navy pilot Scott Speicher, who was shot down 18 years earlier, on the first night of the Gulf War.

The search effort is now in the hands of the military's Personnel Recovery Division, a group of 20 people overseen by Col. Michael Infanti of Stafford, Virginia.

Infanti was the battalion commander in charge of the search for three U.S. soldiers who went missing after their unit was ambushed south of Baghdad in May 2007. Their remains were found more than a year later, after Infanti and other soldiers, who had spent months combing through the canal-lined terrain, had returned to the U.S.

Besides al-Taie, the Personnel Recovery Division is also looking for seven other Americans, four South Africans and a British man.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Jimmy Smith, the division's deputy director, said nine American abductees, including three who were still alive, have been recovered in Iraq since 2004.

The military said it is developing a plan to transfer the cases concerning American citizens to the U.S. State Department, which has promised to maintain a strong diplomatic presence after the troops leave. The other cases will be turned over to their respective countries.

Many kidnap victims were engineers and businessmen participating in the effort to rebuild Iraq.

Jeffrey Ake, of LaPorte, Indiana, has been missing since April 11, 2005, when he was abducted by masked gunmen at a water treatment plant where he was working in the Taji area north of Baghdad. A witness said the kidnappers tied Ake's hands behind his back and placed him in a black vehicle that sped away, according to a U.S. military incident report released by WikiLeaks.

Ake, a father of four who was 47 when he was captured, was last seen in a video two days later in which masked gunmen stood by as he pleaded for his life.

The U.S. military said his captors called Ake's wife, Liliana, shortly after the video was broadcast and began making demands but at some point cut off communication for unknown reasons.

Since then, just silence.

Infanti stresses that he and his team haven't given up on finding someone alive.

"Until somebody shows me different, they're alive. I don't care how long it's been," he said. "It doesn't turn out the way you want to all the time but you don't stop."

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.