US releases Iraqi Shia terror group leader
The US military has released a senior member of a deadly terror group backed by Iran that has been directly implicated in the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers in Karbala during a complex operation in early 2007.
Laith al Qazali was freed last weekend "as part of a reconciliation effort" as well as an attempt to secure the release of captive British hostages, according to a report in The New York Times.
Laith is the brother of Qais Qazali, the commander of the Qazali network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous. Qais Qazali was a spokesman and senior aide to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr. The terror group, which was part of the Mahdi Army until the spring of 2008, has received extensive financial and military support from Iran's Qods Force, the external division that backs Hezbollah and is tasked with supporting the Khomeinist Islamist revolution.
The League of the Righteous was directly implicated by General David Petraeus as being behind the January 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala as well as other high-profile terror attacks in Iraq. Five US soldiers were killed during the Karbala attack and subsequent kidnapping attempt. The US soldiers were executed after US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team.
The attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center was a complex, sophisticated operation. The assault team, led by tactical commander Azhar al Dulaimi, was trained in a mock-up of the center that was built in Iran. The unit had excellent intelligence and received equipment that made them appear to be US soldiers. Some of the members of the assault team are said to have spoken English.
The US military caught a break when it detained Laith and Qais and several other members of the network during a raid in Basrah in March 2007. Also detained during the raid was Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who was tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and "rogue" Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Daqduq is a 24-year veteran of Hezbollah, and he commanded both a Hezbollah special operations unit and the security detail of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Azhar al Dulaimi was killed in a raid in Baghdad in May 2007.
Laith's release part of hostage exchange
The US military claimed that Laith's release is part of a reconciliation effort with the League of the Righteous, but the real aim appears to be the release of five British hostages who were captured by the group.
"As part of a reconciliation effort between the government of Iraq and Asaib al Haq, the decision has been made to release Laith Qazali," Lieutenant Colonel Brian Maka told The New York Times. "Asaib al Haq has pledged to representatives of the Iraqi prime minister to give up violence and move the group towards peaceful integration into Iraqi society. An unconditional cease-fire will be undertaken by the group."
But the League of the Righteous has long demanded that the US military release Qais, Laith, and other members of the terror group in exchange for the five Britons captured in March 2007 during another complex operation at Iraq's Finance Ministry.
The real purpose of the release of Laith was explained by Sami al Askari, a spokesman for Prime minister Nouri al Maliki. The issue of reconciliation is merely a pretext for a prisoner / hostage exchange.
"This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners," Askari told The New York Times. "So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned."
A one-to-one exchange of Shia terrorists for the British hostages will take place over the next week. It is unclear if Qais or Daqduq will be released in the exchange, but in the past, the League of the Righteous has been adamant that they be released.
The release of the League of the Qazalis and other senior leaders of the terror group does not bode well for the improved security situation in Baghdad and wider Iraq as the US prepares to withdraw from Iraq's cities. The Iraqi military dealt the terror group and its Iranian backers a deadly blow during the offensive against the Shia terror groups in central and southern Iraq that began in Basrah in March 2008 and resulted in thousands of Mahdi Army fighters killed and thousands more wounded, and the death of several of its senior military leadership. The movement itself was fractured and was forced to pull out from provincial elections.
The League of the Righteous still conducts operations against Iraqi and US forces in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq. The group has not honored previous ceasefire agreements, and the release of its senior leadership may give the group new life.
Background on Iranian activity in Iraq
Flash Presentation on the Ramazan Corps and the Iranian Ratlines into Iraq. Click the map to view. A Flash Player is required to view, click to download.
Both the Iraqi government and the US military have said Iran has backed various Shia terror groups, including elements of the Mahdi Army. While the Iranian government has denied the charges, Iraqi and US forces have detained dozens of Iranian Qods Force officers and operatives, captured numerous Shia terrorist leaders under Iranian command, and have found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.
US and Iraqi forces have captured several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq since late 2006. Among those captured are Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three Iranian regional commanders in the Ramazan Corps; Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative; Qais Qazali, the leader of the Qazali Network which is better known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous; and Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali's senior tactical commanders. The US has imposed sanctions on Major General Ahmad Foruzandeh, the former Qods Force commander, and Abdul Reza Shahlai, a deputy commander in Iran's Qods Force, for backing Shia terror groups inside Iraq.
Since mid-October 2008, Iraqi and US forces have killed one Qods Force operative and captured 14 during raids throughout southern and central Iraq.
Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has supported various Shia militias and terror groups inside Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Qods Force helped to build the Mahdi Army along the same lines as Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran denies the charges, but captive Shia terrorists admit to being recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.
Iran established the Ramazan Corps immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped establish, fund, train, arm, and provide operational support for Shia terror groups such as the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous. The US military refers to these groups as well as the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army as the "Special Groups." These groups train in camps inside Iran.
US military officers believe that Iran is ramping up its operations inside Iraq after its surrogates suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Iraqi military during the spring and summer of 2008. Iraqi troops went on the offensive against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups in Baghdad, Basrah, and central and southern Iraq. More than 2,000 Mahdi Army members were killed and thousands more were wounded. The operation forced Muqtada al Sadr to agree to a cease-fire, disband the Mahdi Army, and pull the Sadrist political party out of the provincial elections. Sadr's moves caused shock waves in the Mahdi Army, as some of the militia's leaders wished to continue the fight against US forces in Baghdad and in southern and central Iraq.
The League of the Righteous is a splinter group that broke away from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army after Sadr announced he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces in June. The new group, called the Brigade of the Promised Day, has not been linked to any attacks since its formation last summer.
Sadr loyalist Qais Qazali was commander of the League of the Righteous up until his capture in 2007. It is now said to be under the command of Akram al Kabi, a former Sadr loyalist.
The League of the Righteous receives funding, training, weapons, and direction from the Qods Force. The League of the Righteous conducts attacks with the deadly armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles known as EFPs, as well as with the more conventional roadside bombs.
The size of the League of the Righteous is unknown, but hundreds of members of the group were killed, captured, or fled to Iran during the Iraqi government offensive against the Mahdi Army from March to July of 2008, according to the US military.
Sadr is looking to pull the rank and file of the League back into the fold of the Sadr political movement. Earlier this year Sadr issued a message rejecting the US-Iraqi security agreement and said he "extends his hand to the mujahideen in the so-called Asaib but not their leaderships who have been distracted by politics and mortal life from the [two late] Sadrs and the interests of Iraq and Iraqis."
The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata'ib Hezbollah, has been active in and around Baghdad for more than a year. The terror group has increased its profile by conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using the deadly explosively-formed penetrator land mines and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices. The Hezbollah Brigades has posted videos of these attacks on the Internet.
The terror group is an offshoot of the Iranian-trained Special Groups, the US military said last summer. Hezbollah Brigades receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force.
The US and Iraqi military believe the Special Groups are preparing to re-initiate fighting as their leaders and operatives are beginning to filter back into Iraq from Iran. On Feb. 4, Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces Iraq, said that Iran continues to arm, fund, and train the Special Groups, and that munitions traced back to Iran continue to be uncovered in Iraq. Recent intelligence and the finds of new Iranian caches "lead us to believe that Iranian support activity is still ongoing," Austin warned.