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.
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Four of the hostages are thought to be still alive. The hostage-taking was believed to be in retaliation for the arrest two months earlier of the Asa'ib al-Haq leaders.Skip to next paragraph
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British officials are quick to say that Laith al-Khazali's release from US custody was not part of a hostage deal, but believe it could pave the way for the Britons to be freed.
While Iraqi officials say privately they believe that one of the British captives could be freed soon, neither Qais al-Khazali's release nor the freeing of remaining hostages is expected to be imminent.
A sign of lower US expectations
For the US, like much in this war, the expected release of an Iranian-backed insurgent linked to US deaths marks the scaled-down expectations and increasing recognition of a much more complex reality on the ground than the United States had bargained for here.
Before becoming a political player, Mr. Sadr, a Shiite cleric, declared war on US troops here, launching the biggest challenge to American forces since the invasion. US officials went from declaring they were intent on "capturing or killing" him to welcoming him into the political process after a cease-fire.
With the formation of the Sons of Iraq, the US funded almost 100,000 neighborhood fighters, many of them former insurgents, to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. The deals struck by US military commanders included amnesty even for those who had killed US soldiers as long as they renounced violence.
Under the security agreement signed with Iraq last year, by the time it leaves in 2011, the US will hand over or release all of the 11,000 prisoners still in its custody.
Qais al-Khazali would be the highest-profile figure in US custody known to have been let go. In announcing his arrest two years ago, the US military stated that he led one of the Iranian-backed militant groups that it had declared the biggest threat to US forces, and that he had personally authorized the Karbala operation.
Qais al-Khazali had been a close aide of Sadr, but formed a breakaway faction after Sadr agreed to a cease-fire with US forces.
The third member of the group, whose release has been demanded in return for freeing the British hostages, is also still in US custody. US officials say Ali Mussa al-Daqdaq, a Lebanese Hezbollah operative, commanded a special operations group and had been sent to Iran to train Iraqi extremists.
The issue of the release is so sensitive that US military leaders seemed incapable of deciding whether to confirm they had released Laith al-Khazali.
The military indicated that a spokesman's initial confirmation of the release, which stated that the release was part of the reconciliation process, was not supposed to have been issued.
[Editor's Note: In the original version the headline overstated the case.]