U.S. Will Release More Members of an Iraqi Militia

Posted in Iraq | 18-Aug-09 | Author: Rod Nordland and Sam Dagher| Source: New York Times

Ali Faisal al-Lami, accused of being a member of Asa'ib Ahl al Haq and of masterminding a bombing that killed 10 people, was among those recently released from United States custody. Mr. al-Lami denies both charges.

BAGHDAD - The American military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said Monday that more members of a radical Shiite militia would be released from United States custody, even though the military still believed that they were responsible for attacks that killed Americans.

The policy would have once been unthinkable, as American detention centers swelled with those suspected of carrying out attacks. Now it underscores just how much American interests, as the military begins its withdrawal, are taking a back seat to Iraqi ones: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki extracted a promise that the group, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, would renounce attacks against Iraqis in exchange for the release of its members from United States detention.

Iraq's changing contours came into clearer view on another front on Monday: General Odierno announced an initiative to deploy American troops along with Kurdish pesh merga forces and Iraqi Army forces in northern Iraq, to stop Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from exploiting friction between Arabs and Kurds.

For months American and Iraqi officials warned that northern Iraq was becoming the most likely place for any widespread resumption of violence, as tension has risen between Arabs and Kurds over land and resources.

Since American troops withdrew on June 30 from towns and cities, 140 people have been killed in village bombings in the north. "Al Qaeda is exploiting these fissures you're seeing between Arabs and the Kurds in Nineveh Province and the K.R.G.," General Odierno said, referring to the Kurdistan regional government, in a briefing with a small group of reporters. "What we're trying to do is close that fissure."

How much longer American troops remain in Iraq is still something of an open question. Mr. Maliki's office said Monday that it would seek a January referendum on the Iraqi-American security agreement. If Iraqis vote it down, the American military will have to pull out all troops within a year, possibly accelerating the complete withdrawal planned by the end of 2011.

As for the Shiite militia members, five senior figures have been released so far. Among them is the group's leader, Laith al-Khazali, considered the architect of an ambush that killed five American soldiers in Karbala in 2007. Four were killed in cold blood after being taken prisoner.

Salam al-Maliki, a spokesman for the group, said by telephone on Monday that the prime minister had promised to release all 300 to 400 members in detention. In return, he said, his group promised to observe a truce in its fight with the Americans.

General Odierno insisted that "anybody who has blood on their hands will be tried in Iraqi courts," though he conceded that there was no single case of that sort against League militants. The general suggested the deal was essential for Iraq's politics.

"This is about reconciliation," he said. "We believe Asa'ib al-Haq has taken initial steps to reconcile with the government of Iraq." He said that the group's members were respecting a cease-fire and that "they have begun to turn in heavy weapons or at least to consolidate heavy weapons that they have."

American officials have not changed their view about the group's responsibility for attacks that killed Americans. "Again, we have to have evidence," the general said. "There's intelligence there's evidence; those are two completely different things."

The League is a breakaway group made up of former followers of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr. When Mr. Sadr ordered his followers to lay down their weapons, the League was the largest of the Iranian-supported "special groups" that defied him and kept fighting.

Among those released recently was Ali Faisal al-Lami, the former director general of Iraq's de-Baathification council. The military held him for nearly a year after accusing him of organizing a bombing that killed two American Embassy employees, two American soldiers and six Iraqis at a district council meeting in Baghdad last year.

"The Americans are leaving Iraq defeated," Mr. Lami said in an interview on Monday, three days after his release from Camp Cropper near Baghdad International Airport, where so-called high-value detainees are held. "Everything they are doing right now is to save face."

Mr. Lami said his release was part of a government deal with the League, though he described himself as a "supporter" of the group rather than a member.

The deal also will include "final resolution" of the cases of the remaining British hostage of five kidnapped in 2007 by the League, Peter Moore, and of an American soldier, Specialist Ahmed al-Taie, who disappeared in October 2006 while on an unauthorized visit to his family in Baghdad. Mr. Lami said he did not know what that resolution would be or if either of the men was still alive.

Asked if all of the League's militants were to be released, General Odierno said, "We're in the process of releasing a lot of detainees." There are still 9,500 prisoners in the United States military's Camp Bucca, he said, where most of the League's prisoners are held, and that camp is to be closed by Sept. 15.

In Monday's briefing, General Odierno said his biggest concern now is violence in Kurdistan and in Nineveh Province in the north. While overall violence has fallen since June 30, it has increased somewhat in the north, he said.

Tensions between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish military, known as pesh merga, have kept them from working together, with the result that Al Qaeda has been able to attack villages not controlled by either side, the general said.

General Odierno said he met Monday with Mr. Maliki, and over the weekend with Massoud Barzani, the Kurdistan regional government president, to outline the proposal for joint, three-way military operations in the north. Both were receptive, he said.

The plan would be to deploy mixed formations of Iraqi troops and pesh merga as well as American troops along the fault line through Nineveh Province and other northern areas, separating Kurdish and Sunni Arab areas.

General Odierno said the United States' role would be one of oversight and encouraging the two sides to get along, rather than peacemaking. "I think there's room to work this out."

Mohammed Hussein and Riyadh Mohammed contributed reporting.