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Britain Pondered Raid on Iran Over Hostages

Victims of a Covert Tit-for-Tat War

by PATRICK COCKBURN

In the latest act of the grim drama surrounding the fate of the five hostages, officials in London have told the families of two of the guards, Alan McMenemy, from Glasgow, and Alec Maclachlan, from South Wales, that the two men are probably dead. The bodies of two other guards, Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, were delivered in caskets through an intermediary to a Baghdad police station on June 19. Mr Creswell, 39, of Glasgow, and Mr Swindlehurst, 38, of Skelmersdale, Lancashire, were both found by an inquest in the UK to have "died from gunshot wounds". A source in Iraq claimed the two men had been killed some two-and-a-half months earlier, which would put their deaths some time in early April.

Since Peter Moore, 36, a computer consultant, and his four security guards were seized in the Iraqi finance ministry by 40 men dressed as policemen two years ago, it has never been clear who was holding them and where they were being kept. The kidnappers belong to the Asaib al-Haq militant group which split from the Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shia cleric, which had earlier declared a ceasefire. Their main demand has been the release of the movement’s chief, Qais al-Khazali, who had once been Mr Sadr’s spokesman, along with his brother Laith and other leaders who were captured in Basra on 20 March 2007. Two months later, the five Britons were seized in a meticulously organized raid.

British security sources believe that at some point the five British hostages were held in Iran, which shares a highly porous, 900-mile long border with Iraq. Consideration was given to launching a raid to free them, but the plan was abandoned as too dangerous and unlikely to succeed. Negotiations with the kidnappers were all the more difficult because Britain did not want to make concessions and was, in any case, in no position to do so, since the Qais al-Khazali and the prisoners Asaib al-Haq wanted released were held by the Americans.

The US military had no wish to let him go because, when the Khazali brothers were captured, they had in their possession a 22-page document, allegedly prepared by the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, giving details of the US defenses at their camp at Kerbala. This was the target of an expertly planned raid in which five US soldiers were killed, though the attack may have been a botched operation to kidnap them.

In the past, it has been Sunni Arab groups in Iraq who have most often killed their foreign prisoners, often filming their beheading and death agonies. It is not clear why Asaib al-Haq should have killed four of their five captives. A member of the Sadrist movement in Baghdad, with knowledge of actions of the kidnappers, says that at first they wanted the release of 150 members of their movement.

He adds that they were first frustrated by the refusal of the British embassy in Baghdad to negotiate and "believed that British has tortured detainees from this group, and one of them had died during torture". They then killed two of their hostages. "The Iraqi government was on the sidelines and negotiations had been taking place directly between the British embassy and the kidnappers for five months," he said.

Iranian intelligence supported Asaib al-Haq as one of its many assets in Iraq which could be used, when necessary, against the Americans. Iran had always had influence within the Sadrist movement, though its expansion was opposed by Muqtada al-Sadr. "In 2005, the situation changed with the Sadrists," says an anti-Iranian Sadrist militant whose nom de guerre is Hussein Ali. "The Iranians became more involved with the help of important advisers to Muqtada. Iranian policy was to offer aid in the shape of financial support, modern weapons and good communications systems. Once lured into accepting them, the recipient cannot do without them."

At this time, Iranian intelligence was offering $800 to anybody who would attack the Americans or assassinate Iraqi figures, says Hussein Ali. The Mehdi Army militiamen were unpaid, but the Iranians were paying salaries and offering training in Iran. "They give the volunteers $300 to $400 a month, train them to use weapons and fight the Americans." These subsidies have been reduced since it became clear to Iran that US military forces are leaving Iraq.

Mr Moore and the four security men from the Canadian company GardaWorld were the victims of a tit-for-tat covert war waged by US and Iranian intelligence services in Iraq. This reached a peak of intensity in 2007, with Iranian officials and diplomats being abducted in Baghdad and Arbil. British marines and sailors were seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in disputed waters in the Persian Gulf.

This subterranean conflict is now gradually de-escalating as President Barack Obama seeks to reduce points of friction with Iran and US combat forces leave Iraq. Five imprisoned Iranian diplomats were released three weeks ago.

Improved US-Iranian relations seemed to open the door to a prisoner swap because, under the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the US and Iraq last year, all captives of the Americans are to be handed over to the Iraqi government. The government is eager to bring groups such as Asaib al-Haq into constitutional politics, but cannot do so while the movement holds hostages or its leaders are in prison.

Laith al-Khazali was released by the US military in June as part of political reconciliation and, though hostages were not mentioned, Asaib al-Haq was expected to respond. When they did so 10 days later, it was by returning the bodies of two of their captives. Now it is believed that only Mr Moore may be alive of the five originally captured, but the precise circumstances which led to the deaths remains a mystery.

The most important demand of the kidnappers of the British hostages has been the release of Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib al-Haq, who has been imprisoned by the Americans since early 2007. I only met him once, but I remember him vividly because he came very close to getting me killed.

It was in April 2004 when al-Khazali was spokesman for the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the much-revered Shia nationalist cleric, who was being besieged by US forces in the Shia holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Al-Khazali had called a press conference and declared there was a two-day truce in honour of the Prophet’s birthday and to protect Shia pilgrims flooding into Najaf to celebrate it.

I drove down from Baghdad to go to the press conference. I thought that the dangerous part of the road would be in the militant Sunni towns like Mahmoudiyah, Latafiyah and Iskanadiyah, which we had to pass through. Hoping that people looking at the car from a distance would not immediately see I was a foreigner, I was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh, an Arab headdress.

This turned out to be a bad idea. We stopped at a checkpoint outside Kufa, near Najaf, which was manned by heavily armed Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Moqtada, to ask if we were on the right road and had they heard anything about Qais al-Khazali’s press conference. One of them grabbed my keffiyeh and started shouting: "American spy! American spy." They dragged me, my translator and guide Haider al-Safi and our driver Bassim Abdul Rahman out of the car and appeared to be working up to shoot us. Bassim said later: "I believe that if Patrick had an American or English passport – instead of an Irish one – they would have killed us all immediately."

We kept saying we were going to Qais al-Khazali’s press conference and the militiamen said they had never heard of it. Finally they announced we were hostages and they were going to bring us to their leader in a nearby mosque. He said he had not been told about any ceasefire, but agreed to take us into Najaf. There I met Qais al-Khazali, a tall unsmiling cleric in grey robes, who was standing in the courtyard of a dilapidated building.

I asked him what he thought the Americans would do. "I think [they] understand about Iraq’s holy places," he said. "I don’t think they are so stupid as to attack us." I protested mildly that his militiamen had almost killed us because he had not told them about his press conference or ceasefire, but he appeared wholly uninterested.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."