Iraq Shi'ite militia says ready to lay down weapons
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The leader of a Shi'ite militia which carried out some of the most prominent attacks on foreigners during the Iraq war, said the group will lay down its weapons and is prepared to join the political process.
"This stage of the military conflict between the Iraqi armed resistance and the occupation forces is over, with a distinct, historic Iraqi victory and a distinct, historic U.S. failure," Qais al-Khazali told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Khazali also said the group was willing to hand over the remains of British bodyguard Alan McMenemy, kidnapped along with four others in 2007, without conditions.
"We believe that we have carried out our role regarding the liberation of our country and restoring its sovereignty. This political achievement could not have been done without the Iraqi armed resistance," cleric Khazali said. "We have concluded this stage, thank God."
Along with Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda, Asaib al-Haq, Kata'ib Hizballah and other Mehdi Army splinters have been considered major players on the Iraq battlefield in recent years.
U.S. officials say Asaib al-Haq is funded by Iraq's Shi'ite neighbor, Iran, and has frequently blamed it and Kata'ib Hizballah for attacks on American troops, the last of whom left Iraq on December 18.
Asked about Khazali's stated intention to end Asaib's role in the armed conflict, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said: "We've heard it before."
"They have been conducting attacks up until last week, so we'll see," Jeffrey said. "Certainly anybody laying down their weapons at any time in Iraq is a good thing."
Khazali refused to address the U.S. allegation that Asaib al-Haq is funded and armed by Iraq's Shi'ite neighbor.
"This is considered a part of the armed resistance's secrets and cannot be revealed," he said. "Whether Iran or any other side is one of our sources of support cannot be told. We will not confirm or deny it."
It was not immediately clear what the impact of the disarmament pledge would be on sectarian tensions in Iraq, where the Shi'ite prime minister is trying to unseat two leading Sunni politicians and recent attacks have killed dozens of people in Shi'ite areas.
Khazali said his group would not join Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, as had been rumored in recent days, but would work to form an opposition front.
"For sure, we won't join the government ... we won't be a part of this government or its ministers," said Khazali, who wore a cleric's white headdress and gray religious garb, and a large ring bearing the names of the 12 Shi'ite imams.
"The political process in Iraq is weak, and based on one leg ... there is no opposition side to watch the government work, criticize it and evaluate its performance."
Born in 1974 in the impoverished Sadr City area of Baghdad, the charismatic Khazali has long been touted as a potential political candidate. He was a spokesman for fellow Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr early in the war but split with his Mehdi Army in late 2005 to form Asaib al-Haq.
Speaking at one of his own TV studios in northern Baghdad, Khazali recounted with pride the operations carried out by Asaib al-Haq during the war, including the brazen kidnapping of McMenemy, computer programmer Peter Moore and three other guards from a downtown Baghdad Finance Ministry building.
He said Asaib also was responsible for an attack in the city of Kerbala in 2007 that killed five U.S. soldiers.
Khazali was in U.S. custody at the time of both attacks.
Neither British nor Iraqi officials have publicly linked the release of Khazali to the efforts to free Moore and recover the guards' bodies.
But Khazali said he was freed, after about three years at the American prison Camp Cropper, just a few hours before Asaib handed Moore over to Iraqi authorities in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone in late December 2009.
He also said negotiations to free Moore resulted in the release of 285 Iraqi detainees, most of them Asaib fighters.
"I am proud of my brothers. This resistance group succeeded in getting its leader out of jail," he said. "I think that was an achievement which no one accomplishes anywhere."
He denied his militia was involved in the sectarian slaughter that took thousands of lives in 2006-07 and said he is not wanted by the Iraqi government for any crime.
His former ally, Moqtada al-Sadr said recently in a response published on his website to a question about speculation Asaib al-Haq would join the government: "All of them, their hands are stained with Iraqi blood and they need to be held accountable, and eradicated."
Khazali expressed regret for the deaths of Moore's four bodyguards, who he said were killed when they tried to escape their captors. Three of the bodies have been returned and Khazali said his group is ready to hand over the remains of the fourth, McMenemy, without conditions.
He denied that Moore spent any of his time in captivity in Iran, as at least one U.S. official has suggested.
"Peter Moore did not leave Iraqi soil, even for a moment ... he was (moved) between Nassiriya and Amara (in southern Iraq)," he said. "The allegations that he was sent to Iran was to cover the intelligence failures of the U.S. and British services to find him for years."