U.S. senators ask Biden admin to push for release of Princeton grad student held by Iran-backed militia

Two U.S. senators are urging the Biden administration to appeal to the Iraqi government to help secure the release of a Princeton University graduate student believed to have been abducted by an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq six months ago.

In a letter obtained by NBC News, Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, who both represent New Jersey, home to Princeton, conveyed their “grave concern” about Elizabeth Tsurkov’s plight in their appeal to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

They called on the administration “to use our close and abiding relationship with Iraq to raise Elizabeth’s abduction and call for her release at every opportunity and level.”

Tsurkov, 36, is a citizen of both Israel and Russia, placing her in a “uniquely vulnerable position,” the senators said. Israel is constrained in its ability to press for Tsurkov’s release, as it has no diplomatic relations with Baghdad because Iraq does not recognize Israel. And Russia has done nothing to advocate for Tsurkov’s release as she has openly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the letter.

In the letter dated Sept. 11, the senators, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “we believe the United States can and should play a role in advocating for her since her home countries are unable or unwilling to do so.”

Tsurkov was conducting research in Iraq for her dissertation when she was abducted by Kata’ib Hezbollah, a powerful Shia militia in Iraq financed and armed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to human rights groups and the Israeli government. Also known as the Hezbollah Brigades, the militia has staged deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The militia receives funding from the Iraqi government and is supposed to answer to an Iraqi government chain of command.

Israel said in July that Tsurkov was being held by Kata’ib Hezbollah but the militia group has denied that claim.

Tsurkov has been living in the United States on an academic visa and has regularly briefed congressional staff on Middle East issues “for years,” according to a congressional aide.

The Iraqi government so far has not devoted enough attention to resolving Tsurkov’s case, the aide added.

Tsurkov’s sister, Emma, told PBS last week that “the U.S. government needs to apply pressure to the Iraqi government to do everything they can to free my sister, because, currently, that’s not happening.”

The Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the State Department were not immediately available for comment.

Suggestions from online “disinformation” posts attempting to paint her as a spy are “patently false” and “dangerous,” the senators’ letter said.

They also asked the State Department to brief their staff members on the case within the next 30 days.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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