Foreign Office plays down Iranian role in kidnapping

Allegations that Peter Moore and his four guards were taken as part of a 'tit-for-tat' covert war with Tehran have been dismissed as 'speculation', writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online

The kidnapping of Peter Moore and four British security guards was part of a tit-for-tat, semi-covert war between the US and Iran which led to the Britons being targeted. The Foreign Office yesterday played down what it called "speculation" about Iranian complicity in the kidnappings. But Mr Moore's abduction, along with the seizure of Iranian officials in a US helicopter raid, the killing of five American soldiers in an apparent attempt to kidnap them and the capture of 15 British sailors by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Gulf, came during the first six months of 2007, when this tit-for-tat war between Washington and Tehran was reaching its peak.

The kidnapping of the Britons from the Iraqi Finance Ministry in Baghdad on 29 May 2007 was from the beginning a bid to force the release of Qais al-Khazali and other leaders of a militant Shia anti-American group supported by Iran called the League of Righteousness.

Mr Moore was working in the Finance Ministry on a US-funded financial system which would allow the Finance Minister to monitor in real time government expenditure. It was hoped that its installation would reduce corruption, say officials responsible for the project. But it is extremely unlikely that Mr Moore's kidnapping had anything to do with his IT work, since his disappearance would not have halted the scheme, and those with most interest in seeing the scheme sabotaged were corrupt officials in the Iraqi government. Militia groups would not have been hit directly by closer monitoring of government finances.

"The scheme was eventually brought to an end by bureaucratic obstruction by senior civil servants and all the money spent on it was wasted," a former finance ministry official said.

The main difficulty in getting Mr Moore released was that the quid pro quo demanded by the League of Righteousness – the freeing of Khazali and his brother Laith, along with a senior member of the Lebanese Hizbollah movement – was never something that Britain or the Iraqi government could deliver. Until this week the prisoners were in the hands of the Americans. They were convinced that Khazali, a geologist turned cleric, was behind an attack on a US military camp at Kerbala in which five US soldiers were killed.

The degree of Iranian complicity in the kidnapping of Mr Moore is difficult to pin down, but was probably high. Khazali was originally a spokesman for the militant Shia movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army fought the Americans at Najaf in 2004. But by 2006 Sadr had declared a ceasefire and was trying to avoid confrontation with the US army. Some of his former supporters, like Khazali, split off to form new groups pledged to attack US forces. Sadrist leaders say that these received money and directions from the al-Quds Brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The kidnapping of Mr Moore was only one event out of many in the confrontation between the US and Britain on one side, and Iran on the other, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Americans and the British had toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated elite and they were inevitably being replaced by members of the Shia majority, coreligionists and often political allies of the Iranians. From 2005 Iranian policy was to support the elected Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad, but to also to speed the departure of the American and British armies. One instrument for doing this was Iranian support for the Shia militias in Iraq.

In the first half of 2007 this US-Iranian confrontation produced a series of incidents, while hawks in Washington talked up the prospects for an all-out war with Iran. President George Bush told the American nation in an address that "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops". Within hours of his speech, on 11 January, the US military launched a surprise raid on Arbil, the capital of their own Kurdish allies, to seize a high-ranking Iranian delegation which was visiting the Kurdish leaders.

The targets were the deputy head of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Mohammed Jafari, and the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Manuchehr Frouzandeh. The American troops failed to capture them, and instead seized five Iranian officials from the Iranian representative office in Arbil.

The Iranian government was furious. The "Arbil five" became a cause célèbre in Tehran. The US State Department wanted them freed, but Vice-President Dick Cheney successfully demanded that they be held to show US resolution. Other incidents followed. A Iranian diplomat was abducted in Tehran by an Iraqi military unit allegedly under US control and tortured.

Britain paid the price for being America's closest ally without having much influence on US policy. One mistake of British policy was not to take on board that the Iranians, in keeping with their long-held policy of "an eye for an eye", were likely to retaliate. Greater caution might have prevented a small British naval vessel with 15 sailors presenting a tempting target in the Gulf, where it was snapped up by Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats. The sailors were freed after 13 days in captivity. But the next month Mr Moore and four bodyguards, all of whom have been killed, were snatched in Baghdad.

Were the hostages taken to Iran? The Independent reported earlier this year that British intelligence had at one moment thought they were there, and that a raid to free them had been considered. But information about their whereabouts was too vague, and the idea was dropped.

A Sadrist source in Sadr City later said that the four bodyguards were killed because League of Righteousness members had received information suggesting that their militants had been tortured in prison and one had died.

Overall, however, Iran from 2003 was a supporter of the Shia militias. This was scarcely surprising since hawks in Washington, just after the fall of Baghdad, were saying that the next US target would be the regimes in Tehran and Damascus. The powerful Iranian and Syrian security services were determined to give enough support to insurgents in Iraq to prevent the US ever stabilising its grip on the country.

In Basra the Iranians always backed Shia militias to stop British forces getting control of the city. But when the Iraqi government forces attacked in 2008, the Iranians supported them and denounced their former militia allies. The rag-tag Iraqi army was able to succeed in quelling the Mehdi Army in a way which was never possible for the British forces.

The resolution of the saga has come because the Americans are pulling out of Iraq and prisoners held by the Americans are being handed over to the Iraqi government. The government in turn wants former insurgent groups to abjure military force and turn to constitutional politics. The Iranians, for their part, have most of what they wanted. US forces are leaving Iraq. The British have already gone. The Shia community is politically predominant in Iraq. US-Iranian hostility in Iraq which led to the abduction of Mr Moore has for the moment subsided.