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US likely to release insurgent accused of killing five US soldiers

The deal would be part of a reconciliation effort between Iraq's government and extremist Shiite groups.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2009



Baghdad

Marking a gradual but dramatic shift in policy, the US appears prepared to release a major figure it accuses of masterminding the killing of five American soldiers in one of the most carefully planned insurgent attacks of this war, according to Iraqi and US officials.

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Sheikh Laith al-Khazali, a senior member of a Shiite extremist group that the Iraqi government is trying to bring into the political process, was released from US custody over the weekend in what the Iraqi government called a wider reconciliation effort with extremist groups.

The release of his brother Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Iranian-backed militant group Asa'ib al-Haq and is directly linked to a lethal attack in Karbala in 2007, is expected to follow as talks progress, according to US and Iraqi officials. The officials asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Freeing the two men, along with a Lebanese Hezbollah operative arrested by US forces at the same time in Basra two years ago, is also linked to the release of British hostages who have been held by Shiite extremists for the past two years.

"This isn't about freeing the hostages, it's about getting Asa'ib al-Haq to stop its attacks," says one senior American official, regarding the US motivation in releasing the Khazali brothers.

As US forces pull out of Iraqi cities and eventually out of the country, reconciling active insurgent factions is seen as crucial to keeping security gains from unraveling.

The US military has said the group, whose name translates as League of the Righteous, is directed by the Quds force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. They have accused Qais al-Khazali of orchestrating a dozen other attacks, most of them on British targets in the south of Iraq.

In the raid on the Karbala provincial joint coordination center in January 2007, Iraqi gunmen posing as US soldiers killed an American soldier in a grenade attack and abducted four others whom they later shot.

Iraq won't punish militants for attacks on Americans

The issue highlights the stark gap between Iraq and the US regarding the consequences of attacks on American targets.

"Qais al-Khazali has a problem with the Americans. He doesn't have a problem with us," says Mohammad al-Sa'ady, an advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. Sa'ady, who heads the Prime Ministry Implementation and Follow Up Committee for National Reconciliation, says unless Qais al-Khazali were wanted for crimes against Iraqis, they would have no reason to keep him in detention.

"In principle we are ready to forgive anyone who lays down their arms," he says.

The release of the three has been a central demand of Shiite extremists who kidnapped five British hostages from the Iraqi Finance Ministry two years ago.

The British government has been working intently on the release of their citizens – a computer trainer and four employees of a Montreal-based security firm who were abducted by gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniforms.

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