BAGHDAD – 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.
Danny Chism, whose son, Spc. Johnathan Bryan Chism, was among the Americans killed, was outraged upon hearing that al-Khazali had been released. “Somebody needs to answer for it,” he said from his home in Donaldsonville, La.
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.
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.”
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.