A spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq tells ABC News that it has released into Iraqi custody the head of an Iran-backed Shiite group responsible for killing US soldiers, his freedom all but assured as part of the Iraqi reconciliation process.
Qays Khazali, who has been in US custody since March 2007, heads one of the many "Special Groups" or "Secret Cells," called Asa'ib ahl al Haq or "The League of the Righteous." The US military and other experts say the groups are directed by a special unit of Iran's Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the Qods Force.
On January 20, 2007, members of Khazali's network with American-looking uniforms, vehicles and identification cards penetrated the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center and attacked a meeting of U.S. and Iraqi officials, killing five U.S. soldiers and wounding three.
Khazali's release, as well as other members of the League of the Righteous, was first reported in the respected Long War Journal blog which said US military and intelligence officials also said he and others had been turned over to the Iraqis in exchange for the release of British hostage Peter Moore, who was being held captive by the League of the Righteous.
A Pentagon official denied that to ABC News, insisting there was no quid pro quo and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband denied that as well, saying, “there were no concessions in this case. There was no — quote, unquote — deal.”
According to The Surge: A Military History by Kimberly Kagan, Khazali was running Special Groups and answering to the Iranian government by May 2006, specifically reporting to Hajji Yusif, the deputy commander of the Qods Force.
U.S. forces captured him, his brother Laith, and Ali Musa Daqduq in Basra in March 2007.
Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner later that year described what US forces learned from the three men and documents they found when they captured them.
"The document that we captured showed the following," Bergner said. "It showed that the group that attacked the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala had conducted extensive preparation and drills prior to the attack. Qods Force had developed detailed information regarding our soldiers' activities, shift changes and fences, and this information was shared with the attackers. They had American-looking uniforms, vehicles and identification cards that enabled the attackers to more easily penetrate the Provincial Joint Coordination Center and achieve surprise."
Bergner said "we also recovered 11 separate documents that recorded attacks against coalition forces, attacks that were ordered by Qays himself…In all, these documents recorded three attacks against the Basra palace, two targets in Amarah, one against an intelligence target in Basra, two against the Shatt al-Arab Hotel in Basra and an IED attack against a humvee. Additionally one document recorded nine attacks against military vehicles in Rusafa."
"Both Ali Musa Daqduq and Qays Khazali state that senior leadership within the Qods Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack that killed five coalition soldiers," Bergner said. "Daqduq and Khazali both confirm that Qays Khazali authorized the operation, and Azhar al- Dulaimi, who we killed in an operation earlier this year, executed the operation."
An MNF-I spokesman today explained Khazali's release in this context:
"The United States remains fully committed to implementation of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement," the spokesman said. "Since Jan. 1, 2009, we have released 7,801 detainees and transferred another 1,522 detainees, who have warrants, to Government of Iraq custody under the terms of the Security Agreement."
The spokesman said that the Government of Iraq "has been implementing a reconciliation process in numerous communities for over two-and-a-half years," a process that is "a fundamental element of establishing peace and security in Iraq, enabling Iraq to move forward toward national unity and national elections."
Asa'ib ahl al Haq (AAH) is one of many groups that the Government of Iraq is working with on this reconciliation process, the MNF-I spokesman said, with the group's reconciliation "predicated on the group committing to five steps: ending attacks and renouncing violence; taking and holding no hostages; decommissioning its heavy weapons; breaking its links to foreign sources of support and training; and being reintegrated into Iraqi society as a peaceful political actor/social group."
The transfer was described as the US complying with "an Iraqi government request, in accordance with the U.S.-Iraqi Security Agreement and rule of law, to transfer AAH members, including Qays Khazali, from U.S. custody to Iraqi custody pursuant to an Iraqi arrest warrant. This has been occurring over a seven-month period."
One military officer told Long War Journal “We let a very dangerous man go, a man whose hands are stained with US and Iraqi blood. We are going to pay for this in the future.”
*This post has been updated.