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Iraq says militant leader linked to hostages freed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has released a Shi’ite militant leader, an Interior Ministry official said on Tuesday, raising hopes that the last of five British hostages captured in Baghdad more than 2-1/2 years ago would be returned.

But several sources familiar with Khazali’s Shi’ite militant group denied he had been released and British officials believe the last remaining hostage, Alan McMenemy, is now dead.

“According to the information available to us, Qais al-Khazali was released the day before yesterday,” said Alaa al-Taii, the head of the Interior Ministry’s media division.

But Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a liaison for the government on the hostage issue, said judges were still considering Khazali’s case.

“He is still in jail and his file is in front of the Iraqi judiciary system ... he faces many arrest warrants and the judges must examine these charges,” he said.

Khazali is the leader of Asaib al-Haq, the militia believed to be behind the 2007 abduction of computer programer Peter Moore and his four bodyguards in a brazen daytime raid on a fortified government building in Baghdad.

Neither Iraqi nor British officials have publicly linked the release of Asaib al-Haq leaders to efforts to free or recover the bodies of the British hostages. But Khazali’s brother Laith was freed in June shortly before the bodies of two of the guards were handed to British authorities.

It is widely expected Khazali’s release could signal an imminent handover of McMenemy, or at least his remains.

Moore, who was released alive last week, has already flown home to Britain. The bodies of Moore’s three other guards, who were killed in captivity, were returned last year.

A final answer on the fate of McMenemy, the sole remaining guard working in Iraq on a contract for Canadian security firm GardaWorld, would mark an end to the longest hostage saga involving Britons since the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s.

It would also be a milestone for Iraq, where violence has dropped sharply but stability remains elusive and officials are bracing themselves for the U.S. troop withdrawal and political upheaval in advance of national elections in March.

Qais al-Khazali, who was held in U.S. military custody since 2007 for suspected involvement in the killing of five American soldiers, was transferred to Iraqi authorities last month.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said earlier this week he expected McMenemy -- without specifying whether he was dead or alive -- would be handed to British authorities in Baghdad within the coming days.

DEBATE OVER IRANIAN ROLE

Iraqi officials said Khazali was to be freed if local courts could find no evidence against him, underscoring the delicate path Iraq is negotiating as it takes charge of thousands of detainees U.S. forces have held for years, often without charge.

Under a security pact that took effect last year, U.S. forces must transfer all detainees in its custody to Iraqi officials or free them directly.

That has raised fears that Iraq’s already overwhelmed judiciary will not be able to cope, or that a deluge of former prisoners could stir violence anew.

The Khazali brothers’ release is also seen as a step in Iraq’s efforts to bring certain groups away from armed activity into the political process. Some Asaib al-Haq leaders, though, have said the group may distance itself from politics.

Khazali, believed to be in his 30s or early 40s, hails from Diwaniya in Iraq’s largely Shi’ite south. He was a spokesman for anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr before he broke away to form Asaib al-Haq, or the Leagues of Righteousness.

The kidnapping raises yet again the specter of Iranian involvement in Iraq’s insurgency and has also revealed a rift between British and American intelligence on the affair.

General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said last week that Peter Moore was held in Iran for at least part of his captivity.

U.S. officials have not clarified the degree to which they believe Iran may have been involved in the kidnapping.

That is in contrast to statements from the Britain’s Foreign Office casting doubt on British press reports alleging that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps led the kidnapping operation.

Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Jim Loney and Missy Ryan; editing by Jon Hemming

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