A British hostage held for 2 1/2 years by a militant Iraqi Shiite Muslim group was freed Wednesday in a move his family hailed as "the best Christmas present ever."
Computer consultant Peter Moore was freed as the United States handed over to Iraqi authorities Qais Khazali, the leader of the group suspected of kidnapping him and four British security guards, and an undetermined number of Khazali's followers. The U.S. had blamed the group Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous, for the killings of five American soldiers.
The British Foreign Office denied that Moore's release and the transfer of Khazali amounted to a prisoner-for-hostages deal. The U.S. military in Baghdad said late Wednesday that it could not comment yet on Moore or Khazali.
But an Iraqi official familiar with the protracted negotiations said Khazali used the talks to recruit other prisoners to join his organization, promising he would add them to his list of detainees to be freed by the Americans.
Khazali, who once followed Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, is positioned to pose a challenge to his former boss for the mantle of leadership of the country's Shiite underclass.
The U.S. military blamed Khazali for the killing of the soldiers in January 2007 in Karbala, and later captured him and his brother Laith. Laith was freed in June, the month the bodies of two of Moore's colleagues were given to the British. A third corpse was handed over in September when more prisoners were transferred to the Iraqi government.
The body of the fourth security guard has yet to be released.
If the Iraqi judiciary and government follow the precedent from his brother's case, Qais Khazali could be free within days.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced that Moore, who was abducted at an Iraqi Finance Ministry building in May 2007, "was now in the care of the British Embassy in Baghdad."
"I have . . . just had a very moving conversation with Peter himself," Miliband told reporters. "He is in good health, despite his many months of captivity. He is undergoing medical checks, and he will be reunited with his family as soon as possible back in the U.K. He is obviously, to put it mildly, delighted at his release."
Speaking from her home in Lincoln, his stepmother, Pauline Sweeney, told a BBC correspondent the news was "surreal" but declared it "the best Christmas present ever."
"We spoke to him this morning. He sounds really well. . . . He's cracking jokes. I was a total mess," she said. "When they told him to come out this morning, he thought they were going to put a bullet in his head."
Moore, who was employed by BearingPoint, a U.S.-based management consultant firm, and his guards had been abducted by men in police uniforms.
Khazali served as an aide to the Sadr family, first with Muqtada Sadr's father, then under Muqtada after 2003. But his relationship with the young cleric deteriorated as Khazali's ambitions rose. The two were often at loggerheads. Khazali, whom the U.S. military accuses of having Iranian sponsorship, formed Asaib al Haq, but did not formally break with Sadr.
"Some like Qais came to challenge Muqtada and said, 'We can do without Muqtada.' Muqtada is very tough, and can disrespect people. He is shorter tempered, doesn't listen, changes his mind frequently," the Iraqi official said.
The official said Khazali sees himself as an alternative to Sadr. The Iraqi official and some members of Sadr's movement say they think Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is exploring whether Khazali can be a political alternative to Sadr.
In the course of bargaining to be transferred from U.S. custody, Khazali froze his militia's armed activities, a move that the Iraqi government described as a step toward national reconciliation.
The Iraqi official said that no more than 500 people had been loyal to Khazali before his detention, but he had recruited 400 to 450 in prison based on his promise that he would put them on his list of detainees to be released through negotiations with the Americans and Iraqis.
An official of Sadr's movement said Khazali's recruitment drive in prison finally allowed him to break with Sadr.
Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London Bureau.