Iraqi minister says 'blackmail' behind kidnapping of U.S. citizens

CAIRO (Reuters) - Iraq’s defense minister said on Thursday the three Americans who went missing in Baghdad last week had been seized by an “organized gang” that carries out abductions for “blackmail”.

In an interview with Reuters in Cairo, Khaled al-Obaidi said the kidnappers spotted the three Americans as they repeatedly visited the same place.

The three men are employed by a small company that is doing work for General Dynamics Corp, under a larger contract with the U.S. Army, a source familiar with the matter said.

“An organized gang spotted them coming repeatedly to this place, which, I believe, is suspect,” he said. “We cannot say whether these gangs are Sunnis or Shi’ites but they carry out kidnapping and blackmail operations.”

The minister did not say why he considered the place from which the men were kidnapped to be “suspect”. U.S. intelligence agencies investigating the kidnapping are focusing their efforts on three militant Islamic groups closely affiliated with Iran, U.S. government sources said on Thursday.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization are the principal focus of the investigation into the armed kidnapping of the three Americans in the Dora neighborhood, south of Baghdad, the sources said.

In Switzerland on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, however, that they “just went missing,” and he very much doubted any Iranian involvement.

The Iraqi government has struggled to rein in the Shi’ite militias, many of which fought the U.S. military following the 2003 invasion. Shi’ite militias have previously been accused of killing and abducting American nationals.

Hostility between Tehran and Washington has eased in recent months, with the lifting of crippling economic sanctions against Iran, in return for compliance with a deal to curb its nuclear ambitions and a recent prisoner swap.

However, the United States imposed sanctions on 11 companies and individuals on Sunday for supplying Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Reporting by Malak Ghobrial and Mahmoud Mourad; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Andrew Roche and Clarence Fernandez