The surprise release of a Shiite militant linked to the killing of five U.S. soldiers in Iraq is part of a high-stakes gambit that could result in freedom for five British hostages and a political role for a major Shiite extremist group with reputed ties to Iran.
Laith al-Khazali, a leading figure in the Asaib al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, was freed from U.S. custody over the weekend and taken to his home in Baghdad's Sadr City district, according to Iraqi officials involved in negotiations for his release.
Al-Khazali and his brother Qais were arrested in March 2007 and accused of organizing a bold raid on a local government headquarters in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers on Jan. 20, 2007.
"They freed them? The American military did?" asked Danny Chism of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, whose son, Spc. Johnathan Bryan Chism, was among the Americans killed. "Somebody needs to answer for it."
But the case of the al-Khazali brothers has morphed beyond the Karbala attack into a major political issue, involving the British government and Iraq's Shiite-led government attempting to resolve differences with rival Shiite factions.
Negotiations under way for months
Two months after the al-Khazali brothers were arrested, gunmen believed to be from the League seized British management consultant Peter Moore and four of his bodyguards from the Finance Ministry compound in central Baghdad.
Secret negotiations have been under way for months for their release in exchange for freedom for the al-Khazali brothers and others from the League, one of the Shiite "special groups" that the U.S. believes are backed by Iran.
The U.S. military declined comment on the release and referred questions to the Iraqi government, which described the move as part of "reconciliation efforts."
"His release is part of the national reconciliation effort," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. "We are not part of these negotiations but we do support the release of the hostages."
A British Foreign Office spokesman said the release was part of "the wider Iraqi government reconciliation process of reaching out to groups that are willing to set aside violence in favor of taking part in the political process."
The spokesman declined to be identified in line with department policy.
Releasing or transferring detainees
The U.S. military has been releasing detainees or transferring them to Iraqi custody as part of a security pact that took effect on Jan. 1.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. handed over al-Khazali to the Iraqi government and was not involved in his final release. Whitman said the Iraqis told the U.S. that the release was not part of any broader negotiations.
However, Iraqi lawmakers and others with links to Shiite militants said the release was part of a complex series of contacts aimed at releasing the British hostages and offering the League of the Righteous a political role in return for abandoning violence.
Portraying the ultimate goal as abandoning violence makes the process more politically acceptable than a simple hostage exchange with a militant group.
The lawmakers and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
They said the kidnappers had agreed to free the hostages in stages in exchange for the phased release of League members, starting with Laith al-Khazali.
Scaling down military operations
Once all the hostages, including Laith's brother Qais, and detainees are free, the League would hand over all its heavy weapons, release all the remaining Iraqi captives it's holding and transform into a political movement, they said.
They noted that the League and other special groups have been scaling down military operations — part of the reason for the sharp decline in violence especially in the Shiite south.
The transformation of the remaining Shiite militant groups into political organizations would be a significant development for Iraq as it prepares for the end of the U.S. military role.
President Barack Obama plans to withdraw all U.S. combat forces by September 2010 with the last American troops leaving Iraq by 2012.
The League is a splinter group of a Shiite movement led by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqi politicians with links to the League said the group wants to participate in national parliamentary elections on Jan. 30, either by fielding its own ticket or backing candidates from other Shiite parties.
That could boost Iranian influence at a time when America's role is fading.
Links to Shiite extremists denied
Iran's government denies having any links to Shiite extremists in Iraq, but American officials believe the two groups are controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Brigade, which trains Shiite militants from various Middle Eastern countries.
The League's most spectacular operation was the Karbala raid — one of the most brazen attacks of the war.
Several gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons killed one American soldier during that attack, then carried off four captured soldiers and later shot them to death about 25 miles from Karbala.
The attackers traveled in black GMC Suburbans — the type of SUV used by U.S. government convoys.
An initial statement by the U.S. military on the day of the raid said five soldiers were killed while "repelling" the attack on the compound in Karbala.
But after an Associated Press report, the military reversed itself and confirmed that four of the guards had been abducted before being slain in a neighboring province.
West of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, the police chief in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, Col. Mahmoud al-Issawi, said he escaped injury when a motorcycle bomb exploded minutes after his convoy passed in the city center.
It was the second assassination attempt in less than a week against a senior police official in Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.
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