BAGHDAD – A British hostage held for 2 1/2 years by a militant Iraqi Shiite group was freed Wednesday in a move his family hailed as “the best Christmas present ever.”
Computer consultant Peter Moore was released as the U.S. handed over to Iraqi authorities Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the group suspected of kidnapping him and four British security guards, and an undetermined number of Khazali’s followers. The U.S. had blamed the group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, for killing five American soldiers.
The British Foreign Office denied that Moore’s release and the transfer of al-Khazali amounted to a prisoner-for-hostages deal. The U.S. military in Baghdad said late Wednesday that it could not comment yet on Moore or al-Khazali’s case.
But an Iraqi official familiar with the protracted negotiations said al-Khazali used the talks to recruit other prisoners to join his organization, promising he would add them to his list of detainees to be freed by the Americans.
Al-Khazali, who once followed Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is now positioned to pose a challenge to his former boss for the mantle of leadership of the country’s Shiite underclass.
The U.S. military blamed al-Khazali for the killing of the soldiers in Karbala in January 2007, and later captured him and his brother Laith. Laith was freed in June at the same time the bodies of two of Moore’s colleagues were given to the British. A third corpse was handed over in September when more prisoners were transferred to the Iraqi government. The body of the fourth has yet to be released.
If the Iraqi judiciary and government follows the precedent from his brother’s case, Qais al-Khazali could be free within days.