Iraq group says it has kidnapped U.S. contractor

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi militant group said on Saturday it kidnapped a U.S. civilian contractor last month and was negotiating the release of the body of another.

A senior leader of Shi’ite militia Asaib al-Haq, or Leagues of Righteousness, said the abducted contractor, whom he did not name, was seized because the government was not keeping a promise to free Asaib al-Haq supporters from prison.

Such a deal was widely believed to have been behind the release by the same group of British computer programer Peter Moore in December after 2-1/2 years in captivity, despite Iraqi and British government denials of a link.

“The government is carrying out many violations against us,” the militant leader told Reuters, asking not to be identified.

In a video distributed on Saturday, the abducted contractor said he was in good health and was being treated kindly. He wore a U.S. military uniform and spoke in English.

He said his captors demanded the release of all detained members of their group, and that guards of the U.S. security firm Blackwater be prosecuted for a shooting at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007 in which 14 Iraqi civilians died.

Asaib al-Haq also demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. Around 115,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq, almost seven years after the invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military in Iraq declined to comment on the video.

Instead, it distributed a U.S. Department of Defense statement issued on Friday that said a civilian employee of U.S. forces in Iraq, Issa T. Salomi, 60, of El Cajon, California, had been unaccounted for since January 23.

The Asaib al-Haq leader said his group was also negotiating with the Iraqi government over the handover of the body of a U.S. contractor kidnapped and killed in 2006 by another group.

He said his group had received the body of the contractor, identified as Ahmed Qusay al-Taie, from the other militant organization and would release it once it received an assurance from his wife that she would not sue Asaib al-Haq.

Asaib al-Haq splintered from the Mehdi Army of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It is believed to have been behind the 2007 kidnapping of Moore and four British bodyguards in a Finance Ministry building in downtown Baghdad at the height of the sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion.

Moore was freed in December and the bodies of three of his security detail have been handed over. British officials say they believe the fifth hostage was also killed.

The Iraqi government last month released one of Asaib al-Haq’s leaders, Qais al-Khazali, in what was widely presumed to be a prelude to the handover of the body of Alan McMenemy.

Khazali’s brother Laith was freed last June shortly before the bodies of two guards were handed to British authorities.

A final answer on the fate of McMenemy, who worked 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.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Michael Christie