By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Newspapers –
BEIRUT — The U.S. military has recovered the remains of the last U.S. service member missing in Iraq, ending a nearly six-year ordeal involving shadowy militants and a tragic love story, his family said Sunday.
About 1 a.m. Sunday, a U.S. officer knocked on the door of the family home in Ann Arbor, Mich., with news that Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaei was confirmed dead. The officer had no details yet on how or when he died, said Entifadh Qanbar, Altaei’s uncle and an aide to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. Altaei was the last U.S. soldier unaccounted for in Iraq.
Altaei’s brother, Hathal Altaei said the military had confirmed his brother’s identity through a DNA test.
“The officer came eight hours ago and told us,” Altaei said. “We’ve been waiting for five years, suffering, not knowing if he’s alive or dead. This was not the news we wanted, of course, but it’s better than staying like that, without ever knowing what happened to him.”
“There is closure now, but we still want to know: Was he killed, or did he die by natural causes in the hands of the group?” Qanbar said, noting that his nephew had kidney problems that could have worsened during his time as a hostage.
Hathal Altaei said the military hadn’t yet released the remains to the family because no decision had been made yet on whether to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery or near his family’s home in Michigan.
In 2006, gunmen abducted Altaei, an Iraqi-born reservist who was 41 at the time, after he sneaked out of the Green Zone in Baghdad to visit his new Iraqi wife.
In the days after he went missing, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported, at east one soldier was killed; others were wounded in the search for Altaei.
Altaei’s official status was “missing-captured” until the Iraqi government turned over his remains to U.S. officials on Feb. 22, Qanbar said. The family was notified three days later, apparently after forensics tests at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware confirmed his identity.
Several arrests were made in connection to the case, but which group captured Altaei was never determined for certain. Qanbar and U.S. officials have said they believed the abduction was the work of a splinter group from the movement loyal to the militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.