- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

Two senior Republican senators sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday expressing concern over reports that the administration negotiated “directly or indirectly” with terrorists for the release of British hostages in Iraq.

In a letter made available to The Washington Times, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Jon Kyl of Arizona said that the U.S. release last month of Laith al-Khazali, a member of a militant Shi’ite group called Asaib al-Haq, may have been part of a deal to gain freedom for three British hostages held since 2007. On June 21, the group sent the bodies of two British hostages to the British Embassy in Baghdad. The other three are still being held.

The White House has denied negotiating with terrorists and repeated that denial Wednesday.

However, the Republican senators questioned that assertion.

“For 25 years, we have had a bipartisan policy to not negotiate with terrorists and specifically not to release terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages,” Mr. Sessions told The Times. “I think that is a very wise policy and important for the long-term security interests of this country.”

Five Britons - a computer consultant and four bodyguards - were kidnapped in 2007 while visiting the Iraqi Finance Ministry in Baghdad.

A U.S. Defense official told The Times that insurgent factions thought to be backed by Iran “spread rumors” on Monday that the June 8 release of al-Khazali was the first step in hostage negotiations between the Shi’ite group, the British and the United States.

The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be released because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said the rumors were part of a disinformation campaign by Iran to discredit the Iraqi and U.S. governments.

“We do know, however, that Iran has a very strong propaganda effort,” the Defense official said. “This is a well-known effort by Iran to destabilize Iraq not only through propaganda but through kinetic [military] action.”

At the time al-Khazali was released, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said the action was part of a reconciliation effort between the government of Iraq and the Shi’ite group.

A British official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the British government does not make deals with hostage-takers.

“The U.K.’s position on negotiating with hostage-takers is well known and shared with the U.S.: We will not make substantive concessions to hostage-takers,” he said. “We continue to do everything we can to try and secure the safe release of the hostages.”

However, Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service, said that although “it is unclear that this was part of a deal for the British Finance Ministry hostages to be released, I would not rule it out.”

The letter sent by Mr. Kyl and Mr. Sessions said a deal to free the hostages had been “reported by numerous outlets in the United States and Europe. If these reports are accurate, they confirm that your [Obama] administration released a major terrorist detainee in connection with hostage negotiations with a terrorist group.”

The letter asked the administration to clarify its policy on negotiating with militant groups to secure the release of hostages.

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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