The Islamic Shi’a Resistance in Iraq and Iran’s Confrontation with the U.K.

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 18

Jason Swindlehurst, one of the two hostages identified

More than two years after their abduction, two of the five British hostages held in Iraq have been confirmed dead. On June 19, the remains of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst were handed over to the British embassy in Baghdad. The condition of the remains suggested the two men had already been dead for several months. The five men were kidnapped from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance on May 29, 2007 by gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniforms.  

The kidnapping was part of a series of mass abductions that struck Baghdad in 2006 and 2007. The scenarios were always similar; dozens of gunmen wearing the uniform of the Special Forces of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, travelling in police SUVs, raiding civilian targets in central Baghdad and  kidnapping dozens of civilians. The most prominent targets were the Ministry of Higher Education, a meeting of the Iraqi Olympic committee, electronic and computer maintenance, and car parts stores in commercial districts. All of the targets were in central Baghdad.

Some of the victims were released shortly after the kidnappings while others were found dead or never found at all. [1] In the attack on the Ministry of Finance the kidnapped people were, for the first time, Westerners. The abductees were Peter Moore, described as a “computer consultant” working for the U.S. firm BearingPoint (a management consulting agency), and his four bodyguards, all employees of Canadian-based GardaWorld, a security firm that has been criticized for its involvement in advising the British Foreign Office on handling the abductions (Independent, June 21).  The Iraqi Ministry of Finance building is located outside of the heavily fortified “Green Zone” in central Baghdad on the east side of the Tigris river, close to al-Sadr City, where the hostages were taken.

In December 2007, a videotape was released by the kidnappers, calling themselves the Islamic Shi’a Resistance in Iraq, apparently another title for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the People of Righteousness – AAH). The AAH is one of the militant groups that the U.S. Army frequently accuses of having links to Iran. The video, dated November 18, 2007, showed one of the hostages flanked by masked gunmen, asking his government to respond to the kidnappers’ main demand – a British withdrawal from Iraq (al-Arabiya TV, December 4, 2007). The group threatened to kill one of the hostages every ten days if the British troops did not leave Iraq, though the deadline for the British pullout passed without incident. A second video, released in February 2008, included an open letter “to the British people,” urging British citizens to pressure their government to meet the group’s modified demand for the release of nine detained AAH members (al-Arabiya TV, February 27, 2008). [2]

Both the Iraqi and British governments have always denied being involved in negotiations with the kidnappers. Despite this, the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat reported on March 29 that negotiations had started a year earlier between an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Shaykh Qais al-Khaz’ali, the detained leader of the AAH and a former student of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a major Shi’a religious figure who was assassinated by Ba’athist agents in 1999. According to al-Hayat’s sources, a deal had been reached to release the hostages in return for releasing the AAH prisoners.

On June 7, a leading member of the AAH, Laith al-Khaz’ali (a.k.a. Abu Sajjad) was freed, apparently as part of the effort to obtain the release of the British hostages. Abu Sajjad is the brother of AAH leader Qais al-Khaza’ali, and was detained since early 2007. The release of Abu Sajjad combined with the contents of a videotape sent to the British embassy in Iraq in March (showing Peter Moore saying the hostages were safe while calling for greater efforts to obtain their release) spread hope in London that the safe return of the hostages remained possible (Aswataliraq.info, May 28).

An AAH spokesman pointed out that the return of the remains of the two men fulfilled their part of the deal as it had not been specified that the hostages be returned alive; “The agreement stipulates the handover the hostages but not conditionally alive. We have met our obligation regarding that part. Now the other party should fulfill its obligations and release a group of the detainees” (al-Hayat, June 22).

The Khaz’ali brothers were arrested in March 2007 along with a Lebanese man, Ali Musa Daqduq. Daqduq is believed to be a leading figure in the militia of the Lebanese Hezbollah and is thought to have played a leading role in the abduction of the British hostages (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 29).  Daqduq and the Khaz’ali brothers were accused of being responsible for the January 20, 2007 attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, carried out by AAH insurgents disguised in American uniforms and carrying U.S. pattern weapons. The attackers passed Iraqi police positions in GMC Suburban SUVs, heading directly to the site of a meeting between U.S. military officials and local authorities discussing security for an upcoming pilgrimage.  Five U.S. troops were killed – four of the soldiers were taken alive by AAH fighters, but were later shot (some still in handcuffs) and abandoned in the AAH withdrawal. In July 2007 U.S. officials claimed Daqduq admitted to working with Iran’s Quds Force (an offshoot of the Revolutionary Guards) in organizing the attack (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 23, 2007; BBC, July 2, 2007).

The AAH claims to be the true heir to the legacy of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, rather than the much larger Sadrist movement loyal to the Ayatollah’s son, Muqtada al-Sadr.  AAH is particularly important because it lies outside of the command and control structure of Muqtada’s organization and the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. Since its emergence in July 2006, the group has engaged in numerous attacks on Coalition forces, kidnappings and sectarian violence. Members are reported to have received training from the Revolutionary Guards in Iran.

AAH allies in the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah have never hidden their animosity towards the United States and Britain. Despite the fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein brought a Shiite-dominated government to Baghdad, Hezbollah has opposed the war and the occupation. Its involvement in the Shiite insurgency was unclear until the arrest of Daqduq and the emergence of Hezbollah in Iraq, a sister organization of the AAH. Daqduq’s arrest was the first and only time that a Hezbollah figure has been jailed in Iraq. Hezbollah has not confirmed Daqduq’s identity but has not denied it either.

 There are scores of filmed attacks on the Coalition placed on the internet on behalf of both the AAH and Hezbollah in Iraq. They usually appear on the same websites and forums, yet neither organization has an official website. Most of the recordings are of roadside bomb attacks against American and British military vehicles. There are also videos of operations carried out in revenge for the killing of the late Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated in Damascus on February 13, 2008). In an attempt to benefit from the gradual withdrawal of the Coalition from southern Iraq, where the vast majority is Shi’a, the two organizations claim to have led the liberation of the southern provinces (See Bahrainonline.org, June 23, 2008).

The handover of the bodies of the British hostages took place on the same day the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attacked the U.K. during Friday prayers, saying, “[The Western nations] are showing their true enmity towards the Iranian Islamic state and the most evil of them is the British government" (Guardian, June 19). The speech was followed closely by the expulsion of two British diplomats accused of spying. Some British diplomats are of the belief that the U.K. is being used as a “proxy” target by Iran, which is sending a message to the United States without directly endangering relations with the new administration in Washington (BBC, June 19).

The timing of the handover of the bodies may have been part of a larger Iranian strategy intended to deal with international criticism of the June 12 presidential election. In his Friday sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei talked about what he saw as a Western role in inciting an uprising in his country after the election. Khamenei spoke in the afternoon and the handover of the remains of the hostages occurred in the evening. Both Iran and Hezbollah have a long history of using hostage taking as a political tool. The death of the two men was a painful blow to the British government, which was accused by the father of one of the abducted men of not doing enough to secure their release (Guardian, June 22). But the story of the hostage return dominated the headlines in most of the British media, pushing coverage of the mass anti-government rallies in Iran into second place. The Iranian government was upset by the Western media coverage of the post-election events. One cannot rule out the possibility that the timing of the handover of the corpses was a chapter in Iran’s conflict with Britain and the West, a conflict in which groups like the AAH, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hezbollah in Iraq are now playing a significant role.

Notes:

1. One of the hostages released from the mass kidnapping of the Olympic committee told the writer in an interview after his release that they were held in al-Sadr City, a Shia militia stronghold in eastern Baghdad. He said that the kidnappers were not involved in sectarian killing. They released him despite the fact he was Sunni but kept other Shiite hostages accusing them of being associated with the former Ba’ath regime and to Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and the former head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16cNHs0whzw&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eiraqslogger%2Ecom%2Findex%2Ephp%2Fpost%2F5451&feature=player_embedded