On December 30, 2009 British computer technician Peter Moore was released from captivity by the Iranian backed League of the Righteous in return for the freeing of their leader, Qais Khazali. Moore and four British bodyguards, Alan McMenemy, Alec MacLachlan, Jason Swindlehurst, and Jason Creswell, were originally kidnapped from the Iraqi Finance Ministry building in downtown Baghdad on May 29, 2007. The Guardian claims that not only was this an Iranian organized operation led by their Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, but that the British hostages were held in Iran for most of their two and a half year captivity.
The events surrounding the kidnapping are a complicated one beginning with a series of American raids against Iranian operatives working within Iraq. In 2006, President George Bush okayed the killing and capturing of Iranians in Iraq who were supplying weapons and training to Shiite militias. In December 2006 that led to the arrest of General Mohsen Chirazi, the number 3 man in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, which is in charge of Tehran’s Iraq policy. That was followed by a speech by President Bush in January 2007 where he said that the U.S. would stop Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs. Later, on January 11, five Iranians were arrested in Irbil, Kurdistan. The Americans actually missed their targets, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy of Iran’s National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the intelligence chief of the Revolutionary Guards, when Kurdish peshmerga stopped U.S. forces at the Irbil airport. Tehran retaliated by leading a raid on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center in conjunction with the League of the Righteous that led to the deaths of five U.S. soldiers in January. In March 2007, U.S. and U.K. forces detained the League’s leaders Qais and Latih Khazali in Basra in March 2007.
Qais Khazali was one of the leading figures in the Sadr movement when Moqtada’s father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, created it in the 1990s. Qais helped keep the movement alive underground after Saddam killed the elder Sadr. When Moqtada emerged as one of Iraq’s new leaders after the 2003 invasion, Qais was one of his top lieutenants. He would split and then rejoin Moqtada several times before creating his own group, the League of the Righteous in 2006. That year he was also selected to lead the Special Groups that Iran was creating to gain more direct control of Shiite gunmen in Iraq.
Iran planned the May 2007 raid on the Finance Ministry as part of the tit for tat exchange with the United Sates, while the League of the Righteous wanted hostages to gain the release of the Khazali brothers. 80-100 members of the League drove up to the Ministry’s buildings in SUVs in Baghdad, and kidnapped the five Britons in just about 15 minutes. Iraqi intelligence officers from the Defense Ministry who happened to be in the Ministry at the time told the Guardian that they followed the kidnappers to Sadr City where the captives were kept for one day before being transferred to Iran. They passed this information to the Defense Ministry who did nothing. In Iran, the Britons were moved around to several locations. General David Petraeus confirmed this in a recent interview with the BBC where he said he was 90% sure that Tehran held the captives for a time. All negotiations for the release of the hostages occurred in Qom, Iran, but the British Foreign Office refused to directly talk with them, which greatly complicated things.
Almost two years later, Iraq, England, the U.S., Iran, and the League worked out a release plan with Lebanon’s Hezbollah acting as a middleman. In March 2009 a deal was cut whereby the Americans would release all of the League of the Righteous members they held including Laith and Qais Khazali in return for the British captives. In that month a video was released of Moore, followed by the freeing of Laith Khazali. After that U.S. prisons were emptied of some 300 League followers they held under the guise of an Iraqi reconciliation program, along with some of the top Qods Force members that were arrested in 2006-2007, in return for the bodies of Jason Creswell, Jason Swindlehurst, and Alec MacLachlan. Alan McMenemy has yet to be released, but it’s believed that he is dead as well. Sources told the Guardian that the Iranians killed all four bodyguards because for one, they were not considered important since they were only security men, and two to show that they were serious to the British government. The process finally ended with the release of Peter Moore and Qais Khazali. Some American military officers were against this deal, but the Status of Forces Agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad at the very end of the Bush administration in December 2008 requires the U.S. to release all the detainees they hold unless they have broken Iraqi law.
The kidnapping and release of Moore, MacLachlan, Swindlehurst, Creswell, and McMenemy mark the end of one period of post-Saddam Iraq. Washington and Tehran were involved in a covert war for influence within Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The U.S. focused upon Iran’s Qods Force and their support for Special Groups like the League of the Righteous. The U.S. tried to kill or capture as many militiamen and Qods Force operatives as they could, but interference by Iraqi officials meant that this effort could only go so far. The smashing of Shiite militias by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offensives in 2008, along with Iran’s greater interest in political influence through support of Shiite parties in the 2009 and coming 2010 elections, means that their military policy has been put on the back burner. The League even renounced violence in 2009, and briefly flirted with running in the upcoming vote, before withdrawing in early December. What that means for the League is unknown. Qais Khazali is said to still have sway with many Sadrists, which has made Moqtada very worried about his leadership, but its too late for them to run as a party in 2010, which would greatly limit their influence if they wished to join Iraqi politics. There’s a good chance that the League will fade from the scene just as the military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq has.
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