British hostage held in Iran after Iraq kidnapping
BAGHDAD - A British computer programmer seized in Iraq was held in Iran for at least part of his captivity, the U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said on Friday.
Gen. David Petraeus said, however, that it was difficult to tell whether Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard or the Quds force - an arm of the Guard involved in foreign operations - had a role in Peter Moore's capture.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of funneling money and arms to Shiite militias in Iraq through the Quds force and of seeking to exert a negative influence over the neighboring country and its Shiite-dominated government.
The assertion that Moore, who was taken by a Shiite extremist group in Iraq, had been moved to Iran at some stage pointed to the possibility of continued Iranian involvement in its neighbor's affairs. Petraeus warned Friday that Iranian-backed militias still to pose a threat to Iraq's stability.
"It is difficult to say what role the Revolutionary Guards Corps and in particular the Quds force element played in that. I am on the record as having said that our intelligence assessment is that he certainly spent at least part of the time in Iran, part of the time that he was a hostage," Petraeus said.
Moore was freed Wednesday after spending more than two years in captivity. He and four of his bodyguards were kidnapped in a brazen daytime attack in front of the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in 2007. The bodies of three of his companions have been returned and a fourth is believed to be dead.
A British Foreign Office spokesman, who asked not to be identified because of government policy, said Moore was likely to be reunited with his family in Britain in the next 24 hours but details about Moore's return to Britain would not be released because of his family's request for privacy.
Around the same time Moore was freed, the U.S. military transferred a militant whose group was involved in the abduction over to Iraqi custody.
Petraeus said Qais al-Khazali was handed over in accordance with an agreement with the Iraqi government to transfer detainees in American custody or release them.
Al-Khazali, leader of Shiite extremist group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, was held in U.S. custody over accusations he aided an attack in the southern city of Karbala that left five U.S. soldiers dead in 2007.
The militant group had been pushing for al-Khazali's release along with the release of other militants in U.S. custody. U.S. and British authorities have said there was no deal to trade al-Khazali for Moore, although the timing of al-Khazali's transfer from U.S. to Iraqi custody - said by the British government to have happened the same day Moore was released - has raised questions.
A representative of al-Khazali's group and an Iraqi member of the negotiating team that helped secure Moore's release told The Associated Press that the militant group did not release Moore until it got confirmation its leader was transferred.
Gen. Petraeus, who used to be the top American commander in Iraq, also warned during his visit to Baghdad that al-Qaida in Iraq as well as Iranian-backed militias will continue to be a threat as insurgents target government facilities in order to undermine Iraqis' confidence.
"Iraq will continue to be tested throughout the course of this year," Petraeus said.
Iraq is preparing to hold nationwide elections on March 7, and military commanders have warned that attacks could spike before the vote.
Petraeus said the elections, which will determine who will lead Iraq as American forces go home, are of "enormous importance" to the country's future.
Under a plan by President Barack Obama, U.S. forces currently at about 110,000 will drop to about 50,000 by the end of August, and those remaining will be focused on noncombat missions such as training. They in turn, will leave by 2011.
U.S. forces in Iraq held a ceremony Friday marking a name change from what had formerly been called Multi-National Force-Iraq to United States Force-Iraq.
Structurally the U.S. forces in Iraq will remain largely the same for the time being, but the name change symbolizes the evolving nature of the U.S. mission in Iraq and acknowledges that a coalition that used to have troops from 32 countries now has forces from just one.
Petraeus called the ceremony a "milestone in the continued drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq."