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General Petraeus ‘absolutely certain’ that Peter Moore was held in Iran

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ImageThe Times: The former US commander in Iraq is “absolutely certain” that Peter Moore was held secretly in Iran for part of his 31-month kidnap ordeal. Times Online

Alice Fordham in Baghdad and Nico Hines

ImageThe former US commander in Iraq is “absolutely certain” that Peter Moore was held secretly in Iran for part of his 31-month kidnap ordeal.

General David Petraeus’s claim that the British IT consultant was held captive in Iran is likely to intensify the bitter diplomatic relationship between London and Tehran.

Mr Moore was set free yesterday after the United States handed over an Iraqi insurgent suspected of planning the deaths of five American servicemen.

He was released by the League of the Righteous, or Asaib al-Haq (AAH) – an extremist Shia group allied to Iran – and his first night of freedom was spent at the British Embassy in Baghdad.

General Petraeus accused Iran of involvement in the kidnapping within three weeks of the men being seized.

In an interview with The Times in June 2007 he said he believed the kidnappers had been funded, trained and armed by Iran, but he fell short of accusing Tehran of complicity.

He said: "They are not rank-and-file Jaish al-Mahdi. They are trained in Iran, equipped with Iranian (weapons), and advised by Iran. The Iranian involvement here we have found to be much, much more significant than we thought before. They have since about the summer of 2004 played a very, very important role in training in Iran, funding, arming."

His comments revealed today are, however, the first time he has suggested the hostages were actually transferred onto Iranian soil.

Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, said that at a conference in Bahrain on December 13 he had asked General Petraeus whether Mr Moore was moved to Iran.

Mr Gardner told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: “He didn’t hesitate. He said ‘I’m absolutely certain. I’m 90 per cent certain.’

“I said: ‘Is this a personal view or have you seen hard intelligence?’, and he thought for a minute and he said ’I am pretty sure I've seen hard intelligence on it’ … that they were held in Iran for some of the period of their captivity.”

There were also unconfirmed reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was involved in the kidnap.

The Foreign Office played down the reports, saying that it had seen "no evidence" that Mr Moore had been taken to Iran but that it could not say "with any certainty" where the captives were held.

“We have seen speculation that Iran is directly involved in this kidnapping. Iran of course has an influence in Iraq, but we have no evidence to substantiate claims of direct involvement in the kidnapping," a spokesman said.

“We have no evidence that the British hostages, including Peter Moore, were held in Iran. We are not in a position to say with any certainty where they were held during each and every single day of their two and a half years in captivity.”

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that officials had worked tirelessly to secure Mr Moore’s release but strongly denied that the British Government had given ground to his captors. He said: “There were no concessions in this case. There was no – quote, unquote – deal.”

Foreign and Commonwealth Office sources confirmed, however, that the transfer from US custody a few days ago of Qais al-Khazali, a cleric and commander of AAH, helped to pave the way for Mr Moore’s release. They also admitted that British diplomats had been pressing the US to hand over al-Khazali to the Iraqi administration.

The insurgent leader, who is suspected of helping to plan an attack that killed five US servicemen in Karbala in 2007, is expected to be released as part of reconciliation talks between the Iraqi Government and extremist groups.

Mr Moore, 36, was abducted with four British security guards at the Finance Ministry in Baghdad on May 29, 2007, by members of AAH posing as policemen. Three of the guards are known to have been killed. The family of the fourth, Alan McMenemy, were told in July that it was “very likely” that he had been killed.

The Conservatives said that stronger action should be taken against the Iranian military groups accused of taking part in the kidnap.

“Where the hostages were held may become clearer over time,” he said. “The sanctions that should be imposed on Iran should include specific measures to target the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which supports terrorist groups in the region and is heavily implicated in political repression.”

Mr Moore told relatives that he feared that he was about to be shot in the head as his captors prepared to hand him over to Iraqi officials and then into the care of staff at the British Embassy.

In February last year, a video released by AAH showed a haggard-looking Mr Moore asking Gordon Brown to arrange the release by the US of prisoners affiliated to the group. He said: “All I want is to leave this place. I tell Gordon Brown the matter is simple: release their prisoners so we can go.”

When Laith al-Khazali, a brother of Qais al-Khazali, was released in June, the remains of Jason Creswell, 39, and Jason Swindlehurst, 38, were surrendered. Inquests were told that each died from a gunshot wound to the head. The body of Alec MacLachlan, 30, was handed over in September.

Under the status of forces agreement, the US must transfer all its detainees to the Iraqi authorities by the end of 2011. Commanders aim to complete the handover early next year. It is believed that the transfer of Qais al-Khazali was delayed because of his suspected involvement in the US deaths.

Sami al-Askari, an Iraqi MP involved in the negotiations for the hostages, said that Qais al-Khazali and other members of AAH were transferred to Iraqi custody a few days ago.

A spokesman for the Iraqi administration said that Mr Moore’s release was secured by Iraqi mediators.

At a press conference in London, Mr Miliband appealed to AAH to release Mr McMenemy’s body. “For Peter’s family the pain and anguish is over. For the other families it endures.”

Mr Moore’s adoptive mother, Avril Sweeney, 54, said that the news of his release was a “bolt out of the blue, a complete and wonderful shock”.

His father, Graeme Moore, 60, who has not seen his son since he was 21, said that it was a botched operation. “If they had done it properly, all five would be walking out of there.”

Mr Miliband said that he had had a “very moving” conversation with the freed hostage, who was in a “remarkable frame of mind”. Mr Brown also spoke to Mr Moore by telephone.

Foreign Office officials rejected accusations that Britain had done a deal “by proxy”. A senior figure said: “We would support the efforts of the Maliki Government to bring about national reconciliation regardless of the hostage situation.”

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