Iraqi terror group frees US hostage


Issa T. Salomi, a US civilian contractor, behind a flag that reads “League of the Righteous, Imam Ali Regiment.” Associated Press photo.

An Iranian-backed Shia terror group has freed a US hostage who was kidnapped in late January.

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 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.

The US military denied that Qais, Laith and other leaders and fighters were freed as part of a prisoner swap, and instead insisted the men were released as part of a reconciliation program.

Multiple US military and intelligence officials who are familiar with the League of the Righteous said reconciliation was a cover to conduct the prisoner swap, and told The Long War Journal that the group would return to terrorism.

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 League of the Righteous] is assessed to have engaged in numerous EFP and IED attacks, as well as kidnappings, sectarian killings and other heinous crimes that threaten Iraq’s future,” the US military stated.

Qais and Laith Qazali.

Background on Qais Qazali

Qais Qazali was the commander of the League of the Righteous before US forces detained him and several other Shia terrorists in 2007. Qais commanded a large Mahdi Army faction and served as a spokesman and senior aide to 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 evolution.

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 had been 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 had been tasked by Iran with organizing the Special Groups and “rogue” Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Daqduq is a 24-year veteran of Hezbollah, and he had commanded both a Hezbollah special operations unit and the security detail of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Azhar al Dulaimi, the leader of the January 2007 Karbala assault team, was killed in a raid in Baghdad in May 2007.

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. Presentation by Nick Grace and Bill Roggio, December 2007.

Both the Iraqi government and the US military have stated that Iran has backed various Shia terror groups inside Iraq, 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 found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.

Since late 2006, US and Iraqi forces have captured or killed several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq. Among those captured were Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three Iranian regional commanders in the Ramazan Corps; Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative; and Qais Qazali, the leader of the Qazali Network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous. Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali’s senior tactical commanders, was killed in Iraq in early 2007.

More recently, since mid-October 2008, Iraqi and US forces have killed one Qods Force operative and captured 17 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 having been recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.

Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran established the Ramazan Corps to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says that 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 along with 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 has been ramping up its operations inside Iraq since 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.

Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in Iraq

The League of the Righteous was a faction of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army that splintered after Sadr announced in June 2008 that he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces. The new group, called the Brigade of the Promised Day, has not been linked to any attacks since its formation in the summer of 2008.

Sadr loyalist Qais Qazali was commander of the League of the Righteous up until his capture in 2007. The group 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. Back in late 2008, 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 Promise Day Brigade, the newest of the Iranian-backed groups, was formed by anti-American Shia leader Muqtada al Sadr during the summer of 2008 after he announced he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces in June. The group actively receives support from Iran, the US military told The Long War Journal.

“According to US and Iraqi intelligence sources, the Promise Day Brigades (PDB) terrorist organization is an Iranian-sponsored group actively targeting US Forces in attempt to disrupt security operations and further destabilize the nationalization process in Iraq,” Lieutenant Todd Spitler, a Press Desk Officer at Multinational Forces Iraq, said.

The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata’ib Hezbollah, has been active in and around Baghdad since 2007. 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.

Both the US military and the Iraqi military believe that the Special Groups are preparing to reinitiate fighting as their leaders and operatives are beginning to filter back into Iraq from Iran. On Feb. 4, 2009, 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.

In July 2009, General David Petraeus, the commanding officer of US Central Command, said during an interview at the World Affairs Council Global Leadership Series that Iran continues to back the Special Groups.

“There is no question that Iran continues to fund, train, equip, and direct to varying degrees some of the groups still active in Iraq,” Petraeus said.

As recently as March 16 of this year, Petraeus described Iran as “the major state-level threat to regional stability,” and said Iran is still backing terror groups inside Iraq.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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