Reporting from Baghdad and Najaf, Iraq — The Iraqi government freed a leading Shiite Muslim militant on Tuesday, his followers said, part of an exchange that saw a longtime British hostage freed last week.
High-level officials in the Iraqi government refused to confirm the release of Qais Khazali, a onetime aide and now rival of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Two of Khazali's followers discussed the release on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Alaa Taii, told the Associated Press that Khazali had been freed. Taii could not be reached for further comment.
Khazali's release had been billed beforehand as a key step before his League of the Righteous would hand over the fourth of five British hostages, whom the Shiite leader's supporters had abducted from the Iraqi Finance Ministry in May 2007.
Khazali, notorious for his past militia activities and his ambitions to challenge Sadr as the leading voice of militant Shiites in Iraq, was delivered to his followers Tuesday morning after police escorted him out of Baghdad's Green Zone government enclave, the two followers said.
The release followed the complicated transfer of Khazali and 450 of his supporters from U.S. to Iraqi custody, which began in June when his brother Laith and a senior aide were given their freedom.
Since then, the League of the Righteous has handed over to the Iraqi government the corpses of three of the abducted British hostages, and the kidnapping's one known survivor, Peter Moore, a computer technician. Moore was freed last week after the Americans transferred Qais Khazali to Iraqi custody.
The fate of the fifth hostage remains unknown, although he is believed to be dead.
The U.S. military has backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government in its effort to bring Khazali into the political process and has said the League of the Righteous halted its attacks against the Americans early last summer.
Khazali had been held since March 2007 in the kidnapping and killing of five U.S. soldiers in the southern city of Karbala in January of that year. His supporters kidnapped the Britons to bargain for his release. At the time, the Americans accused Khazali of working in direct collaboration with Iran's Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard.
The U.S. military believes that Moore was held for at least part of the time in Iran, but a senior Iraqi official said the hostage probably had been held in Iraq for most, if not all, of his time in captivity.
The official described Khazali's relationship with Iran as one of mutual interest, and no different from that existing between Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and Tehran.
The League of the Righteous, the Mahdi Army "and even Sunni groups get support from Iran," said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. "They are different in the levels of cooperation."
He compared Khazali's situation to that of exile Iraqi parties who had fought Saddam Hussein before 2003.
"No doubt all the armed groups, especially the Shia, have done training there. They [the Iranians] train them on how to abduct, [and] plant explosives," the official said. "They need to know how to use the tactics. Why else was Daqduq with Khazali if not for training," he added, in reference to Ali Musa Daqduq, a member of Lebanon's Hezbollah picked up with Khazali by U.S.-led forces.
Daqduq remains in U.S. custody but is expected to be handed over to the Iraqis soon.
Despite the Karbala killings, the U.S. military has offered tacit support to Iraq in its intentions to rehabilitate Khazali.
"The way you end these kinds of conflicts, the way you end these kinds of wars . . . is by individuals ultimately reconciling. That process is one we have supported and the Iraqi government has supported as well," Gen. David H. Petraeus said on a visit last week to Baghdad, when asked about Khazali's transfer to Iraqi custody.
Maliki's circle has weighed Khazali, 39, as an alternative to the volatile Sadr, according to the Iraqi official. Sadr disappeared from public view more than two years ago and is believed to be studying in Iran.
One former supporter has described Sadr as surrounded by advisors with close ties to Tehran who have isolated him and issued their own statements in his name.
Khazali boasts the pedigree to challenge Sadr because of his history as one of the closest aides to Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, who was slain in 1999. Khazali served as a right-hand man to the younger Sadr in the first years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, as the pair built upon the legacy of the father for championing the rights of the Shiite underclass.