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Paul Hair is a national security expert and an author. He writes under his own name and as a ghostwriter. Connect with him at http://www.liberateliberty.com/. Contact him at paul@liberateliberty.com.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Iranian Group that Murdered U.S. Troops Playing Prominent Role in Iraq Years after U.S. Authorities Released Its Leader in Likely Hostage Exchange

Image © Paul Hair, 2014
Iranian-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, murdered and maimed many U.S. troops during the Iraq War, but years ago the U.S. chose to release its leader in a possible hostage exchange and both he and the League are playing prominent roles in Iraq today. This underscores how hostage exchanges and releasing enemies back into society have consequences; it also underscores how successful the League was in countering the U.S. in Iraq.

Media reports indicate that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) now plays a prominent role in fighting against the Sunni Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. McClatchy reported in late June that AAH was fighting alongside official Iraqi forces:
The commandos managed in all-night fighting to take control of tall buildings near the stadium, according to witnesses and local residents. On Friday, they were reinforced by militiamen believed to be members of the Shiite group Asiab al Haq, an Iranian-trained militia with extensive experience fighting in Iraq against the U.S.-led occupation and in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Assad, which faces its own Sunni rebel uprising. Reports indicated the commandos and militia members were battling to expand their perimeter late Friday, with uncertain results.
Earlier reporting reinforces that the militiamen indeed are part of AAH. This earlier reporting told of an Iranian general working with the Iraqi government to fight IS. This Iranian general has helped train AAH:
Major General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s al-Quds force, a formation in the Revolutionary Guards, is also a formidable enemy of the West and is believed to have been the architect of numerous attacks on British and US personnel throughout the region. 
He flew to Baghdad last Friday with dozens of officers to co-ordinate Baghdad’s defence. . . . 
One of the most successful Shia militant groups trained by General Suleimani’s men in Iraq was Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The group, closely connected to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another key ally of General Suleimani, conducted scores of attacks against British and US troops.
Qais al-Khazali leads AAH. He is the same man who led the group while it murdered and maimed U.S. troops during the 2003-2011 Iraq War.

British troops captured al-Khazali sometime around 2007 but U.S. authorities decided to release him in 2009. They allegedly did so as part of a so-called reconciliation program but The Long War Journal reported that others claimed it was actually a hostage exchange:
Qais Qazali, the leader of the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous, was set free by the US military and transferred to Iraqi custody in exchange for the release of British hostage Peter Moore, US military officers and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal. The US military directly implicated Qais in the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers in Karbala in January 2007. 
“We let a very dangerous man go, a man whose hands are stained with US and Iraqi blood,” a military officer said. “We are going to pay for this in the future.” 
The US military has maintained that the release of members and leaders of the League of the Righteous is related to a reconciliation agreement between the terror group and the Iraqi government, but some US military officers disagree. . . . 
Moore and four members of his personal bodyguard were kidnapped at the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May 2007 by a group that calls itself the Islamic Shia Resistance, which is in fact a front for the League of the Righteous. The group had always insisted that Qais, his brother Laith, and other members of the Asaib al Haq be released in exchange for Moore and the others. Three of Moore’s bodyguards were executed while in custody, and the fourth is thought to have been murdered as well. 
“This was a deal signed and sealed in British and American blood,” a US military officer told The Long War Journal. “We freed all of their leaders and operatives; they [the League of the Righteous] executed their hostages and sent them back in body bags. And we’re supposed to be happy about it.”
That wasn’t the last time the U.S. allegedly exchanged terrorists for hostages. The Long War Journal reported in 2010 the U.S. again released captured AAH jihadists in exchange for an American hostage:
Issa T. Salomi, a US civilian contractor who was kidnapped in Baghdad, was freed by the Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous, on March 25. The news of Salomi’s release was not disclosed until late on March 27. 
A spokesman for the League of the Righteous claimed Salomi was freed as part of a prisoner swap with the US military. 
‘[He was freed in return for the] release of several of our leaders who were in US and Iraqi custody,” a spokesman told AFP. “Salomi is in good health and he was not hurt during the captivity period.” 
The US military has not commented on Salomi’s release, nor would it disclose if any leaders or members of the League of the Righteous have been freed in exchange for Salomi’s freedom.
The same Long War Journal report included some other pieces of interesting information.
The League of the Righteous had previously demanded that the Iraqi government release all members of the League and “bring the proper justice and the proper punishment to those members of Blackwater company that have committed unjustifiable crimes against innocent Iraqi civilians,” according to a videotape released by the terror group on Feb. 5, just one week after Salomi’s kidnapping.
The US has conducted prisoner exchanges with the League of the Righteous over the past nine months. Qaiz Qazali, the former leader of the League of the Righteous, was freed in late December 2009 in exchange for the release of a British hostage, who had been captured by the League of the Righteous in May of 2007. Qais’ brother, Laith, was freed in July 2009 along with more than 100 other members of the group. 
The US military has also released at least five senior officers of Iran’s Qods Force, including Mahmud Farhadi, the leader of the Zafr Command, one of three units subordinate to the Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps, since last summer. . . . 
In mid-December 2009, the Iraqi Security Forces and the US military halted operations against the League of the Righteous. The last reported capture of an operative was on Dec. 16, 2009, according to a press release issued by the US military. In that release, the League of the Righteous was described as an “Iranian-funded ...criminal network” that is “believed to be responsible for attacks against Iraqi and Coalition forces, as well as network recruitment in the Baghdad area.” 
The AAH demand for “justice” against the Blackwater employees never came from the Iraqi government but it looks like it might come from the U.S. government. The Associated Press reported in early June that the government is still trying to prosecute them:
After years of delays, four former guards from the security firm Blackwater Worldwide are facing trial in the killings of 14 Iraqi civilians and the wounding of 18 others in bloodshed that inflamed anti-American sentiment around the globe. 
Whether the shootings were self-defense or an unprovoked attack, the carnage of Sept. 16, 2007 was seen by critics of the George W. Bush administration as an illustration of a war gone horribly wrong. 
A trial in the almost 7-year-old case is scheduled to begin with jury selection on Wednesday, barring last-minute legal developments. Prosecutors plan to call dozens of Iraqis to testify in what the Justice Department says is likely to be the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the U.S. to participate in a criminal trial.
And while it might be a stretch to say that the U.S. government is prosecuting the Blackwater employees on the wishes of AAH, it isn’t a stretch to wonder whether the U.S. government will end up inflicting harsher punishment on Blackwater employees who defended the U.S. than it did on AAH terrorists who murdered and maimed U.S. troops.

Some might think that the Iranian-backed AAH operating in Iraq now is a positive thing since they appear to be fighting the Sunni IS, which now controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Yet the Iranians likely played a significant part in destabilizing Iraq and allowing IS to rise to power. The Washington Free Beacon reported in mid-June on Iranian efforts to destabilize Iraq:
As Iraqi militants continue to wage attacks and seize territory, the State Department has signaled that it is willing to work with neighboring Iran to stabilize the country. They have even raised the idea of discussing Iraq on the sidelines of the ongoing nuclear discussions taking place in Vienna. 
However, the recent outreach to Iran runs counter to the State Department’s own Country Report on Terrorism issued just six weeks ago. 
That report warned that Iran is building a terror network across the globe and that it was specifically seeking to undermine U.S. goals in Iraq by fostering terror groups on both sides of the ethnic Arab divide in Iraq. 
“Despite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups,” the report stated. 
Iran also has sought to protect and bolster al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim group that has ties to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the extremist terror group that is currently seeking to violently depose the Iraqi government.
It’s unclear how much of a role that AAH specifically played in destabilizing Iraq, but its Iranian sponsors certainly did. And that raises questions why anyone would think that AAH or Iran operating in Iraq is a good thing now.

The U.S. decision to stop operations against AAH in late 2009, along with its decision to release many AAH members and other terrorists back into society as parts of de facto hostage exchanges, have proven to be terrible strategic decisions by the Bush and Obama administrations. They have resulted in the subsequent deaths of many people, and contributed to the destabilization of Iraq while AAH and other terrorist groups thrive. Furthermore, the destabilization and now fracturing of Iraq shows how successful AAH was in undermining U.S. efforts in Iraq from 2003-2011.

Expect AAH to continue being influential in Iraq and expect terrorists who have been released from governmental custody to return to terrorism and gain more power and influence.

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