Amid the uproar in the Arab world over the latest Israel-Gaza confrontation, it may be no coincidence that the Iraqi government has chosen this time to free from jail Ali Mussa Daqduq, a suspected Hezbollah operative believed to have trained Iraq’s Shia militants on behalf of Iran.
The decision to discreetly release him on Thursday has infuriated US officials, who claim he helped organise an audacious attack on a US base in the Iraqi city of Kerbala in January 2007, in which Shia militiamen kidnapped and murdered five US troops. Washington, which transferred Daqduq to Iraqi custody after the pull-out last year, wanted him to remain in jail, or, better still, to be transferred to America for trial. But an Iraqi court, to no one’s great surprise, acquitted him, allowing him to scuttle back to his native Lebanon.
Those of you who are not full-time Iraq watchers may well have never heard of Daqduq. You may, however, be familiar with the story of the so-called Iraq Five, the British men who were taken hostage in Baghdad in May 2007, to which his release adds a final postcript of sorts.
The backstory goes roughly like this. The Iraq Five kidnapping was a direct act of retaliation for the capture of Daqduq and two other Shia militants, Qais al Khazali and his brother Laith, during a raid by British special forces in Basra, two months after the Kerbala attack.
What followed was the longest-running British hostage crisis since Terry Waite case in the 1980s, only without the happy ending. Four of the hostages were killed, while the sole survivor, IT lecturer Peter Moore, was released at the end of 2009 in what was widely believed to have been a delicately-engineered “prisoner swap”.
That, of course, is not how it was described at the time by the British government, which insists it never makes concessions to terrorists. However, Mr Moore’s eventual release came just a few days after coalition forces transferred Qais al-Khazali to the custody of the Iraqis, who promptly freed him. His brother, Laith, had been released in similar fashion a few months before.
Coalition officials claimed that this was all part of a scheduled timetable to give judicial control back to the Iraqi government, which then released the Khazalis as part of an effort to foster “reconciliation” with insurgent groups. Many, though, think it was at the very least a very fortuitously timed coincidence – a diplomatic fudge.
If a prisoner exchange was done, though, it was a high price to pay, particularly for the Americans, who believed that Khazali brothers’s militant group, the League of the Righteous, was involved in the Kerbala attack. Not long after Moore and Qais al Khazali were released, I spoke to Vanessa Chism, the stepmother of one of the murdered soldiers, Specialist Johnathan Bryan Chism. While she didn’t object to a prisoner swap in principle, she lamented the prospect of not getting justice for her stepson.
“We were informed that this was going to happen, and while personally we would like the people who did this to our child to be punished, they will have to live with what they did,” she said. “But if some good came out of it, by the release of that British man, then I am fine with that.”
It wasn’t just Westerners, though, who lost their chance for a day in court. The League is also believed to have been behind the abduction of 30 Iraqi Red Crescent workers in Baghdad in 2006, most of whose fate remains unknown. When I was last in Baghdad, the family of one of the workers told me that they felt that they too should have been consulted over any prisoner swap. They argued that as part of any deal, the League should have been made to hand over some of its Iraqi hostages as well as Mr Moore – or at least say where the bodies lay.
“I do not blame Mr Moore for this – it was not his fault that he was kidnapped,” said the Iraqi family member, who asked not to be named. “But if the authorities were going to release the Khazalis, they should have at least made the League give information about what happened to people like my husband.”
What Daqduq will do now is anybody’s guess, although if Qais al-Khazali’s example is anything to go by, it may not be the last we have heard of him. Qais has since gone into regular politics in Iraq, but still takes a delight in baiting the British and Americans by boasting about the success of the League’s various military options.
At the beginning of this year, he claimed that the League was responsible for the downing of a British helicopter in Basra in May 2006, in which five British soldiers died, Flt Lt Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, Wg Cdr John Coxen, Lt Cdr Darren Chapman, Capt David Dobson and Marine Paul Collins.
The incident culminated in a jeering mob of Iraqis attacking a rescue force that came to the crashed helicopter’s aid, and marked yet another downturn in the British military’s relations with the people of Basra.
Whether the League of Righteous genuinely shot the helicopter down, or whether this was just an idle boast by al Khazili, I have no idea. What it does perhaps show, though, is that when it comes to “reconciliation” in Iraq, there have been some very clear winners and some very clear losers.