Why did Britain ignore the lessons of hostage history?

The tried and tested techniques of kidnap negotiations were shunned in Iraq – with fatal consequences, says Kim Sengupta

The bodies lying at the British embassy in Baghdad yesterday were the grimmest reminders of a dark tale with accusations of betrayal and intrigue. Two years of frantic searches, night raids and secret negotiations amid the murderous violence had failed to save at least two of the five men who disappeared on 29 May 2007.

They were taken from an Iraqi government building in the centre of the Iraqi capital by men in police uniform, past army checkpoints and a second security screen into Sadr City, the base of Shia militias, all signs, say the men's families, of official collusion.

As the months dragged on without any sign of their release, the father of Peter Moore, viewed as the main hostage, told The Independent that he felt that his son and the others had been "abandoned" by the British Government. The Foreign Office, said Graeme Moore, had not bothered to keep him informed of what was going on. At the same time, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowafaq al-Rubaie, accused the British Government of not doing enough to secure the release of its own citizens.

Was this true? In the aftermath of the kidnappings, an SAS unit based in Baghdad, part of a coalition special forces group called Task Force Black, mounted several raids with Iraqi and US forces in an attempt to free the hostages. But General David Petraeus, the American commander of allied forces in Iraq at the time, acknowledged: "There have been several operations to try to rescue them; we just have not had the right intelligence."

On at least two occasions, one in Sadr City and the other in the Shia district of Khadamiyah, British and US troops were said to have made raids just hours after the hostages had been moved on. There were questions on whether details of the missions were being leaked by Iraqi security forces.

At the same time, British officials, based at a building called the "Station House" in Baghdad, as well as Basra in the British-controlled south, began indirect talks with the kidnap gang. The efforts to find a solution took on added urgency with reports that at first one, and then another, of the hostages had died, allegedly by their own hands. But no evidence was provided of this, and the official position remained that the men were alive, and every effort was being made to get them out.

It soon became clear that a deal would have to be done with the captors. But who they were, and what they wanted, became a major stumbling block. The Shia group involved, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, was trained and funded by the Iranian regime and had been responsible for attacks on US and British forces, General Petraeus and other senior American commanders believed.

The group had asked that three "high value" prisoners – their leader Qais al-Khazali, his brother, Laith al-Khazali and a Lebanese Hizbullah commander, Ali Moussa Daqduq – should be turned over to Iraqi custody in return for freeing the captives. The Americans were apparently considering this (after a British request) until Iraqi officials said they were not prepared to prosecute the men.

Mohammad al-Sa'ady, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said: "We pointed out that Qais al-Khazali has a problem with the Americans. He doesn't have a problem with us. He is not wanted for crimes against Iraqis. In principle, we are ready to forgive anyone who lays down their arms."

Senior US commanders were said to have forcefully argued against letting go of Qais al-Khazali, who they allege was responsible for planning the murder of five American soldiers in Karbala in January 2007. General Kevin J Bergner of the US Army claimed at the time of his arrest a few months later that documentation showed the Iranian al-Quds force had taken part in organising the attack and that, under interrogation, al-Khazali had admitted Iranian involvement.

Last week, Laith al-Khazali was freed, leading to hopes that reciprocation would begin with the British hostages. But Asaib Ahl al-Haq was said to have been adamant that Qais al-Khazali must also be released before any exchanges.

Sami al-Askari, one of the senior negotiators with the militias for the Iraqi government, said that he believed this was going to happen. The formula used was that since Asaib Ahl al-Haq had indicated wishing to join the political process, both sides would have to make compromises. "We told them that they cannot do so while holding hostages," said Mr al-Askari. "We also told the American side that the group cannot join the political process and release their hostages while their leaders were behind bars and imprisoned."

For the British Government, negotiations were now effectively the only hope of bringing the hostages home. The SAS troops in Iraq were being transferred to a new front in the "war on terror": Afghanistan. US and Iraqi forces would continue to search for the men, but there was a realisation in London that it would not be the first task in their list of priorities.

There seems to have been no realisation that two of the hostages had been dead for weeks, one possibly for months. What has now happened does not mean that the three remaining hostages will be kept captive. But serious questions must be asked about the tactics employed by the British Government and also the role of GardaWorld, the company which employed the four bodyguards for Mr Moore.

Court papers lodged in the US claimed that GardaWorld had continued to charge USaid, which paid for Mr Moore's protection, $1,000 a day for the "services" of the four bodyguards while they were in captivity. The company, it was alleged by a former employee, did not have a kidnap and insurance policy and this was revealed to the families of the hostages. The company also employed a public relations company to manage the bad news. Friends of Mr Moore who organised events to keep his memory alive say they had complaints from the PR firm.

And GardaWorld is said to have played a part in shaping the British Government's policy of sparse publicity over the matter, a policy very different from the ones adopted over other abductions, such as those of Terry Waite and John McCarthy in Beirut, Norman Kember in Baghdad and Alan Johnston in Gaza. As a result, say critics such as Graeme Moore, the hostages were more or less forgotten until the shocking reminder of the news from Baghdad.

Asked out the insurance and $1,000-a-day charge, a spokesman for GardaWorld said: "We haven't disclosed any of the details around this."

A crisis management firm, Millbrook Partnership, was employed in response to hostage-taking. Its responsibilities include dealing with communications.

The GardaWorld spokesman said that rather than influence the Foreign Office, "I think the British Government was of a similar mindset".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'