held in iraq

Sister of kidnapped Russian-Israeli Princeton academic urges Biden admin to pressure Iraq

Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad by an Iranian-backed terrorist group with formal ties to the Iraqi government

Eric Tucker/AP Photo

In this Sept., 2018 selfie image provided by Emma Tsurkov, right, she and Elizabeth Tsurkov are shown in Santa Clara Valley, Calif.

The sister of Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Russian-Israeli doctoral student at Princeton University who was kidnapped a year ago in Iraq by an Iranian-backed militia group, is urging the Biden administration to pressure the Iraqi government to secure Tsurkov’s release.

Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad while working on research for her doctoral thesis in March 2023; her abductors are believed to be part of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed, U.S.-designated terrorist group in Iraq that has been blamed for the recent attack in Jordan that killed three U.S. service members. The group is separate from Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A video appearing to show Tsurkov was released in November, in which Tsurkov claimed to be an Israeli and American spy. Her sister, Emma Tsurkov, said that it is “clear” her captors forced her sister to make the statements.

Emma Tsurkov’s call for the Biden administration to push the Iraqi government to secure her sister’s release comes ahead of a visit to Washington by the Iraqi prime minister later this month. Emma Tsurkov noted, in an interview with Jewish Insider last week, that Kataib Hezbollah holds an official role in the Iraqi government and thereby benefits from U.S. funding.

“Although my sister is not a U.S. citizen, she is, first of all, a graduate student of Princeton, was there on Princeton business,” Emma Tsurkov said. “But also the U.S. has a unique leverage point and responsibility to her because the U.S. is essentially indirectly funding the people who are holding my sister hostage.”

She said that the Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani’s visit, which the Iraqi leader has been seeking for years, provides a “unique leverage point” for the U.S. government to apply pressure.

“The idea that my tax dollars and yours and everyone else’s in the U.S. is going to pay the salaries of the people holding her just keeps me up at night into this rage and frustration,” she continued. “I just frankly do not believe the Iraqis are doing everything they can… They just don’t care.”

A State Department spokesperson told JI that the Department is “concerned by and closely tracking this case.”

“We strongly condemn the abduction,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to urge the Iraqi government to find Elizabeth and secure her release as soon as possible.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Emma Tsurkov accused Iraqi authorities of complacency in investigating the case and incompetence in failing to prevent the kidnapping, in what she described as a safer neighborhood of Baghdad. She emphasized that Kataib Hezbollah operates publicly and in full view of the Iraqi government.

“They have a political wing that’s part of the Iraqi government. They’re part of the prime minister’s governing coalition. They’re not hiding, they’re not ashamed,” she said. “They are proudly roaming the halls of power in Baghdad with absolutely no fear of real accountability.” 

Emma Tsurkov also related her sister’s captivity to that of the hostages being held in Gaza by Hamas, adding, “you’ve seen recent coverage of what it means for a woman being held hostage by a terror organization.”

She said that the group has made no specific demands for her sister’s release.

Moscow has reportedly declined to advocate for Elizabeth Tsurkov’s release in light of her criticisms of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The case has attracted some attention in Washington — Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) highlighted the case in a letter to the administration in September, urging officials to use connections with the Iraqi government to work for her release.

Emma Tsurkov said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is currently circulating a letter as well.

The Iraqi leader’s visit is also attracting controversy from another front: On Thursday, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Budd (R-NC), Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Rick Scott (R-FL) and Reps. Jake Ellzey (R-TX), French Hill (R-AR), Mike Turner (R-OH) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) criticized the administration for hosting the Iraqi leader.

They said that the meeting reflects “appeasement of Iran,” given the Iraqi government’s funding of Iranian-backed militia groups and blockade of support to U.S. allies in Kurdistan, and undermines Israel.

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