Iraqi accused in deaths of five US soldiers is freed
BAGHDAD - The surprise release of a Shi'ite militant linked to the killing of five US 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 Shi'ite 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 US 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.
Khazali and his brother Qais were arrested in March 2007 and accused of organizing a raid on a local government headquarters in Karbala that killed five US soldiers on Jan. 20, 2007.
"They freed them? The American military did?" asked Danny Chism of Donaldsonville, La., whose son, Specialist Johnathan Bryan Chism, was among the Americans killed. "Somebody needs to answer for it."
But the case of the Khazali brothers has morphed beyond the Karbala attack into a major political issue, involving the British government and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government attempting to resolve differences with rival Shi'ite factions.
Two months after the 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 Khazali brothers and others from the League, one of the Shi'ite "special groups" that the US believes are backed by Iran.
The US 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. 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.
The US 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 United States handed over Khazali to the Iraqi government and was not involved in his final release. Whitman said the Iraqis told the United States that the release was not part of any broader negotiations.
However, Iraqi lawmakers and others with links to Shi'ite 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.