The Guardian: Britain is considering a direct approach to Iran for help in discovering the whereabouts of four British security guards and a financial consultant abducted in Iraq and who was responsible for seizing them. The issue was raised yesterday at a meeting of Cobra, Whitehall’s emergency committee, the Guardian has learned. The Guardian
Julian Borger, Richard Norton-Taylor and Michael Howard in Irbil
Britain is considering a direct approach to Iran for help in discovering the whereabouts of four British security guards and a financial consultant abducted in Iraq and who was responsible for seizing them. The issue was raised yesterday at a meeting of Cobra, Whitehall’s emergency committee, the Guardian has learned.
Senior Iraqi officials said they were working on the theory that the gang behind the kidnapping was a rogue faction of the Mahdi army of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, possibly operating under the influence of Iranian intelligence. “We do not think that Sadr ordered this operation, but we are almost certain that some militia members who profess loyalty to him were involved,” said a senior foreign ministry official.
He said that “the lack of organisation and discipline” within the Mahdi army’s ranks had allowed the Iranians to move in and bring some of Sadr’s fighters under their control. “They [the Iranians”> want to show the US that they have influence over the Mahdi army, and that the US must come to them for help,” he said.
Well-placed British officials pointed out yesterday that the Mahdi army was now made of different groups, not all of which are under Mr Sadr’s control. Secret rogue cells in the militia are known to have links with Iran’s revolutionary guards, though well-placed British officials also said these could operate without Iranian help.
The SAS, which is represented on the Cobra committee, is ready to intervene immediately if intelligence emerges on the whereabouts of the five Britons. An SAS team is on standby in Baghdad, prepared for such a crisis, and an MI5 intelligence officer has flown to the capital.
In Baghdad yesterday, US Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles, backed up by helicopters, took up positions around the Shia stronghold of Sadr City as US soldiers and Iraqi commandos pushed deeper into the district on the second day of operations aimed at finding the hostages.
The US military said they had arrested two members of a “secret cell terrorist network”, but it was unclear whether they were connected to the abduction. Another raid targeted the home of a Shia cleric, Abdul-Zahra al-Suwaidi, who runs Mr Sadr’s headquarters in Sadr City. The four security guards working for a Canadian-based firm, GardaWorld, and an expert from a US management consultancy firm, BearingPoint, were abducted from the finance ministry building in the capital by up to 40 men, some dressed in police uniforms, on Tuesday and driven towards Sadr City.
A spokesman for Mr Sadr denied that the kidnapping was officially sanctioned. “We are an obvious target. To do such a provocative act as this kidnapping would be counterproductive,” said Salah al-Obeidi. “We are committed to the political path and it is working well for us.”
Mr Sadr, who presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist, made his first public appearance in the country for four months last week, calling for American troops to leave and criticising the meeting between the Iranian and US ambassadors as an interference in Iraq’s affairs.
His move was seen in part as an attempt to rally his movement, amid reports of splits. “In many ways the US has a common interest with Muqtada,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the conservative Washington Institute for Near-East Policy. He said Iran was working with a series of Mahdi army commanders and in many cases they were people Muqtada had kicked out of his movement. “The Iranians have never felt comfortable with a powerful Iraqi figure like Muqtada, who they don’t completely control.”
Mr Obeidi dismissed speculation that the abduction was connected to the killing of a senior Mahdi army official in Basra last week. “This was a well organised operation that would have taken some time to prepare,” he said. British officials agreed.
However, an Iraqi security official said the authorities were also considering the possibility that the abduction might be linked to the seizure of five Iranian officials by US forces in a raid in Irbil. Tehran has been pressing for the men’s release.