New details have emerged in recent weeks about how three Americans were freed from Iranian prisons on January 17. That very day a cargo aircraft with pallets full of $400 million in cash landed in Tehran. The Obama administration denies any connection between these two events but common sense suggests that the delivery of the money—even if it was ostensibly to pay old claims for Iranian arms sales dating back to 1979—was conditioned on the release of the hostages. Hence it was, in the common understanding, a ransom.

But even as those American hostages were being released, new ones were being seized. On January 15, three American contractors working for a subsidiary of General Dynamics to train Iraqi Special Forces were seized by Shiite gunmen in Baghdad and held for a month before being released. In a fascinating interview with Hannah Allam of McClatchey, the hostages for the first time tell their story, thus shedding a bit more light on what happened.

The three men were Waiel El-Maadawy, an Egyptian-American Army veteran and former Florida sheriff’s deputy; his cousin and fellow Arabic speaker, Amr Mohamed; and Russell Frost, from Wichita, Kansas. The three men were seized from an interpreter’s apartment—and had to endure the indignity of having Iraqi officials claim they were actually in a bordello. Later they had to suffer a month of torture: “The next three weeks brought round-the-clock horror: excruciating pain and utter darkness. They were kept blindfolded and shackled in stress positions, didn’t get much food and learned to urinate in empty water bottles to avoid the beatings that accompanied bathroom visits, the men said. One captor patted El-Maadawy’s muscular build and told him it was a shame that ‘all that was about to be worm food.’ ” The three men continue to struggle with the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal to this day.

And who was responsible for inflicting this torture on them? According to McClatchey, “The two Arabic-speaking Americans asked their captors whether they were part of the Iraqi government. They replied that the Iraqi government ‘paid them to be in charge of this neighborhood,’ El-Maadawy said…. ‘They were supporting the Iraqi government, augmenting the Iraqi forces,’ El-Maadawy said of his captors. ‘In essence, we were kidnapped by the Iraqi government.’ ”

But even though they were closely linked to the Iraqi government, the Sadrist gunmen also must have had close links to the Iranian government—ties that go unmentioned in this article. The Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite militia group of which these kidnappers were a part, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian Quds Force. It is doubtful that the kidnappers could have held three Americans for a month without at least a tacit okay from the Iranian government—and probably would not have released them either without an okay from Tehran.

But we know nothing about why the men were held or why they were released. This story is told strictly from the hostages’ point of view; they didn’t know why the Shiite militiamen decided to hold them or to release them. Was a deal struck between Washington and Tehran or between Washington and Baghdad? It did not necessarily have to be a monetary deal—there could have been a quid pro quo of some kind. We simply don’t know. If Congress is going to probe the $400 million payment to Tehran, it should probe the contractors’ kidnapping as well, along with the more recent seizure of further dual-national Iranians to replace the ones that have been released.

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