News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIranian is key to UK hostages

Iranian is key to UK hostages

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Sunday Times: An Iranian agent held by the Americans in Iraq is at the centre of attempts to get five British hostages freed, a senior Iraqi official claimed last week. The Sunday Times

Hala Jaber and Michael Smith

AN Iranian agent held by the Americans in Iraq is at the centre of attempts to get five British hostages freed, a senior Iraqi official claimed last week.

The five men – four bodyguards and an economics expert working for the US company BearingPoint – were kidnapped from the Iraqi finance ministry in May.

The Iranians have demanded the release of Qais al-Khazaali, a former lieutenant of Moqtadr al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army militia leader and radical cleric, as part of any deal to free the British hostages, the official said.

Khazaali is held by US forces after being accused of leading a raid inside a base at Karbala in January in which five US soldiers were killed.

The official said the British hostages were kidnapped in a well planned operation as part of attempts to force the Americans to free Khazaali.

Until his arrest, he was one of al-Sadr’s senior aides but it is his links to the Iranians that make him key to the hostages’ release, the official said. Trained in Iran, he is one of the leaders of a military movement that Tehran is setting up in Iraq along the lines of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi sources say.

The Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds force is training and funding Shi’ite cells for the purpose of mounting operations against US and UK forces in the event of an attack on Iran. But the Americans “refuse to release him and since then all negotiations have come to an end”, the official said.

Gordon Brown asked about the fate of the hostages and attempts to secure their release when he met Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, last month.

Maliki sent an emissary to Tehran to ask for assistance in getting the hostages freed. He returned with evidence that they were still alive, the official claimed.

UK officials said they were not aware of the evidence but confirmed that Khazaali’s release was a key part of the kidnappers’ demands.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran said last week that it had evidence of an extensive Al-Quds intelligence and military network operating against British troops in southern Iraq.

The Al-Quds force was training Shi’ite militia members in both Iraq and Iran for operations against the British in the event of a US attack on Iran. The network is run by the Al-Quds base at Ahvaz in western Iran and coordinated by the Iranian consulate in Basra.

It was originally set up by a member of the Al-Quds force who had spent eight years in Lebanon training and working with Hezbollah.

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