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Iraq hostage Peter Moore's release raises questions

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

As with most hostage dramas in the Middle East, the release of information technology specialist Peter Moore in Baghdad raises many questions, some of which may never be answered.

Peter Moore before his kidnap
Peter Moore - pictured before his kidnap - is said to be in good health

The release itself was unheralded until the last moment, when word went round that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was about to make a statement on the Baghdad hostages.

Even then, there was nothing publicly known to suggest that it would be the happy news of the release of a live detainee, rather than grim tidings that another of the five had been handed over dead, as three already have been in June and September this year.

In general terms though, it had been expected that the chapter of the five British hostages would be closed well in advance of the March general elections.

The kidnap group, believed to be an offshoot of the militant Shia Mehdi Army of Moqtada Sadr, is said by Iraqi government officials to be eager to take part in the elections - but will only be allowed to do so if it rehabilitates itself politically by cleaning up its act and releasing the hostages.

'National reconciliation'

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, alluded to this factor in a statement issued after Peter Moore's release.

"The Iraqi government was always supportive of efforts to free him, within the drive to support national reconciliation and involvement in the political process through democratic means and respect for the rule of law," he said.

Adding to the questions surrounding the kidnap, it has been claimed by a leading British newspaper, the Guardian, that Iran organised the kidnapping of Mr Moore.

The Iraqi government has begun to receive detainees held by the US forces
Ali al-Dabbagh
Iraqi government spokesman

The newspaper quoted an unnamed former Revolutionary Guard saying: "It was an Iranian kidnap, led by the Revolutionary Guard, carried out by the al-Quds brigade."

The Guardian said the top negotiator for the Iraqi government, Sami al-Askari, had flown several time to Iran to negotiate with the kidnappers in the holy city of Qom.

But Mr al-Askari, who is a member of the Iraqi parliament and adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told the BBC that Iran had nothing to do with the kidnapping, and that he had never flown to Iran.

He said he was negotiating with the kidnap group in Iraq itself, and talks were continuing with a view to obtaining the release of the remains of the fifth hostage, Alan McMenemy, who he confirmed is dead.

Mr Askari indicated that the timing of Peter Moore's release was linked to the demand of the kidnappers for a number of their own militants, detained by the Americans, to be freed.

A key figure whose freedom the kidnappers were seeking, Qais al-Khaz'ali, is now being held in Iraqi custody, Mr Askari said, and he had personally visited him in jail.

As part of the preparations for a US troop withdrawal, American forces are handing over hundreds of detainees to the Iraqi authorities - including some of those sought by the kidnappers - in a process that was supposed to be completed by the end of this year but will take a bit longer.

The release of Shia militants from the kidnap group, which calls itself the Leagues of Righteousness, is being carried out under the banner of that process and of Iraqi national reconciliation.

A trade-off deal involving the British hostages is implicit, but does not formally include the British government.

The Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh's statement certainly linked the two issues.

Timing

Another element conditioning the timing of the release concerns the reported demand of the kidnappers for a number of their own militants, detained by the Americans, to be freed.

As part of the preparations for a US troop withdrawal, American forces are handing over hundreds of detainees to the Iraqi authorities - including some of those sought by the kidnappers - in a process that was supposed to be completed by the end of this year but will take a bit longer.

It is not clear whether some kind of deal may have been struck behind the scenes, particularly over Qais Khazali, the top figure whom the kidnappers wanted freed, in exchange for Peter Moore's release.

But government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh's statement certainly linked the two issues.

"The Iraqi government has begun to receive detainees held by the US forces," he said.

"They will be dealt with in accordance with the Iraqi legal system and in line with laws and prevailing systems in the Iraqi republic, and individuals against whom there is no criminal evidence will be released."

Biggest prize

Another unanswered question is why Peter Moore has been freed alive, while the fifth and final hostage, Alan McMenemy, remains unaccounted for, and is strongly believed to be dead.

Without revealing their evidence, British officials have publicly announced their belief that Mr McMenemy had been killed - a step they would emphatically not take if they believed there was the slightest chance he was still alive.

Alan McMenemy
Alan McMenemy is still unaccounted for - but believed dead

But Mr Moore certainly was, and that, combined with the fact that he was the client being guarded by the other four, give him a much higher value to the hostage-takers than a dead bodyguard.

So why did they release their biggest prize now, having earlier handed over the remains of the other three security advisers who had been killed?

For all the reasons that led to freedom for Mr Moore, the expectation is that Mr McMenemy's fate will be clarified one way or the other in the near future, otherwise the chapter will not be closed.

Among the mysteries that Mr Moore may be able to resolve are the circumstances in which his fellow-hostages died.

According to British officials, at least two of them - Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst - were killed by gunshots to the head long before their remains were handed over in June this year.

But it is not clear whether they were "executed" in cold blood, or died while trying to mount an escape bid, as some rumours have suggested.

A video issued by the kidnappers in July 2008 said one of the Jasons had "committed suicide" in May that year.

That same video showed Mr McMenemy calling on the British government to take action to allow him to return to his family in Scotland. So he was still alive after the probable death of both Jasons.

Small news

The British hostage affair has in general had little impact among the Iraqi public at large.

Mr Moore's release came on a day when at least 23 Iraqis were killed and 60 others injured in a double suicide bomb attack in Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad.

To the Iraqis, the kidnapping of the Britons was an obscure political affair involving foreigners. The news of Mr Moore's release figured towards the end of Iraqi news bulletins.

Although the security situation has improved hugely over the past two years, Iraqis - including schoolchildren - continue to be kidnapped for ransom, a practice that was extremely widespread during the worst of the violence and lawlessness that prevailed during 2006-7.



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