- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - One of five Britons seized by a Shiite extremist group in Iraq nearly two years ago could be freed “very soon” under a deal to win release of militant leaders held in U.S. custody, an Arabic language Web site reported.

A senior aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged Saturday that contacts were under way to release the five Britons, who were taken hostage in May 2007, but denied a deal had been struck.

The widely read Saudi-owned Elaph Web site quoted a leader of the extremist group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, as saying that a video sent this month to the British Embassy in Baghdad showing one of the hostages was part of the deal.

Elaph quoted a leader of the group, identified only by his nickname Abu Ali, as saying the deal was being mediated by an unidentified Iraqi lawmaker.

Abu Ali said that first 10 of the group’s members would be released in return for one of the Britons. If that went well, others would be released in stages, the report said.

The first group would include Laith al-Khazali, brother of the league’s founder Qais al-Khazali, Elaph said.

The final exchange would free Peter Moore, an information technology consultant, in exchange for Qais al-Khazali and Ali Moussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah commander who was captured in Iraq in 2007, the Web site reported.

Under a new U.S.-Iraq security agreement, the U.S. military plans to release all detainees this year except those that the Iraqi government wants to prosecute. They will be turned over to the Iraqis.

The British Embassy confirmed receiving a hostage video but refused to say who appeared on it. The BBC said it was Moore, who had appeared in an earlier video shown on Feb. 26, 2008.

Moore and four of his security guards were seized by heavily armed men in police uniforms from the Finance Ministry compound in Baghdad.

The league is a splinter group from the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. believes the group is backed by Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.

Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite cleric and former aide to al-Sadr, has been in U.S. custody since March 2007. U.S. officials believe al-Khazali’s group launched a January 2007 raid on a government compound in Karbala, that killed five U.S. soldiers.

Al-Sadr has declared a cease-fire that the military believes is a key factor in the drastic drop in overall violence nationwide.

The U.S. military also paid Sunni fighters to join forces against al-Qaida in Iraq _ a move that has helped dampen support for the insurgency.

The Iraqi government has taken over payment of the so-called Sons of Iraq, but some of the Sunni groups have complained that they haven’t been paid for the past two months.

Dozens of Sunni guards protested the missed payments in Baghdad’s southern neighborhood of Dora on Saturday.

Ahmed al-Jubouri, who leads 267 Sons of Iraq who oversee three sections in Dora, blamed the recent transfer of authority for the payments from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry.

“We will wait until the end of April,” he said. “If the government does not pay our salaries, then we will abandon our work.”

The government also has promised to hire 20 percent of the more than 91,000 Sons of Iraq into the army or police, but the transition has gone slowly.


Associated Press Writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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