Iraq delays taking militant amid doubts in US
BAGHDAD - Iraq’s government said yesterday that it would delay taking custody of a top Hezbollah commander from the US military after American senators asked the Pentagon “to take whatever steps’’ necessary to block the transfer for fear he would escape or be released.
The move puts new pressure on Washington to decide whether, and where, to prosecute Ali Mussa Daqduq before a year-end deadline when the US military hands over all detainees it is holding in Iraq.
The US military has been holding Daqduq, a Lebanese militant from that country’s Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, since he was captured in 2007 in the Iraqi Shi’ite holy city of Karbala.
Dubbed by a former CIA officer as “the worst of the worst,’’ Daqduq is accused of working with Iranian agents to train Shi’ite militias who targeted US soldiers in Iraq. He was linked to a brazen 2007 raid in which four American soldiers were abducted and killed in Karbala.
Several days ago, Iraqi Justice Ministry spokesman Haidar al-Saadi said Daqduq would be handed over to Iraqi custody by the end of the week.
But yesterday, Saadi said Baghdad would wait until the US. has finished an investigation of Daqduq before taking custody of him, leaving the timing unclear.
“When their investigation ends and he is transferred to the Iraqi side, we will then announce this event,’’ Saadi said. “I can’t give you an expected date.’’
Unless the US prosecutes him, the American military must transfer custody of Daqduq and any other detainees to the Iraqi government by Dec. 31 under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. But Congress and the White House have slowed his case by feuding about whether to bring him to the United States for trial or send him to a military court at the Navy base at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
If surrendered to the Iraqis, US counterterror officials think Daqduq will soon be out on the streets.
Numerous high-profile terror suspects have escaped from Iraq’s prisons, including some whom investigators said likely had inside help. Additionally, Iraq has released tens of thousands of terror suspects who were captured by US forces during the height of the war because of what Baghdad has described as little evidence tying them to crimes.
Or, US officials fear, Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government will simply free Daqduq, given Baghdad’s recent efforts to improve diplomatic ties with Iran, which has funded training for Shi’ite militias. In a slap to the Obama administration, Iraq’s government in 2009 released two of Daqduq’s acolytes - Laith and Qais al-Khazali, who also were implicated in the Karbala attack - after being lobbied by the Iranian-linked Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia.
In a letter dated Thursday, 20 US senators asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “to take whatever steps you can to block Daqduq’s transfer to the Iraqi government and out of US custody.’’
“If he is released from United States custody, there is little doubt that Daqduq will return to the battlefield and resume his terrorist activities against the United States and our interests,’’ the senators wrote in the letter signed by 19 Republicans, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senator John McCain of Arizona, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut, also signed the letter.
They were responding to a report Wednesday about Daqduq’s imminent transfer.
For years, the United States planned to try Daqduq in a US court, but that has stalled as the White House and Congress clashed about how to prosecute suspected terrorists.
Under President George W. Bush, a Republican, US officials planned for military and intelligence officials to question Daqduq, and then let an FBI team start the questioning over from scratch. That way, he could someday be brought to a US court and his statements could be used against him.
But Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in May refused to let Daqduq and other terrorist suspects be brought to the United States for trial.