An extremist Shiite group believed responsible for the killing of five American soldiers in a bold raid south of Baghdad and the kidnapping of five British men has agreed to renounce violence, a government adviser said Monday.
The deal was reached during a weekend meeting between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and representatives of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, a group the U.S. alleges is backed by Iran and refuses to adhere to a militia cease-fire.
The group promised to lay down its weapons and join the political process, according to government aide Sami al-Askari, who was present at the meeting. In return, al-Maliki promised to seek the release of the detainees in U.S. custody, al-Askari said.
The deal comes as the Shiite-led Iraqi government moves increasingly to assert its sovereignty and solidify its power base ahead of national elections scheduled for January. The U.S. military also has seen its influence wane as it begins to pull back its troops with plans for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Laith al-Khazali, a key member of the group, was released in June as part of national reconciliation efforts by the Iraqi government. He and his brother, Qais, were accused of organizing a daring attack on a local government headquarters in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers on Jan. 20, 2007.
Monday's announcement also comes less than a week after Britain said it believed two British hostages captured two years ago in a raid on Iraq's Finance Ministry blamed on the group were likely dead. The bodies of two other British contractors seized were returned to England in June, while negotiations are under way for the release of the IT consultant they had been guarding.
Call for unity
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh also confirmed the deal, according to Iraqi state television.
"The delegation of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group announced its support for the political process, renounced violence and offered support for efforts to achieve national unity," he told reporters. "Both sides agreed to solve the pending problems, especially the issue of detainees whose hands have not been stained with Iraqis' blood and who have no criminal evidence against them."
A cease-fire called by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr after his forces were routed in American-backed Iraqi government offensives has contributed to a sharp decline in violence nationwide, helping to ebb the rampant sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
But Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other Shiite extremist factions broke with al-Sadr, raising fears that the bloodshed could resume.
The group's main liaison with the government, Salam al-Maliki, said only that many issues were discussed.
"The Iraqi government is getting its full sovereignty on Iraqi land, especially after signing the security pact and accelerating the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq," he told state television.