BAGHDAD — The surprise release of a Shiite militant linked to the killing of five U.S. soldiers in Iraq is part of a high-stakes gambit that could result in freedom for five British hostages and a political role for a major Shiite extremist group with reputed ties to Iran.
Laith al-Khazali, a leading figure in the Asaib al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, was freed from U.S. custody over the weekend and taken to his home in Baghdad's Sadr City district, according to Iraqi officials.
Khazali and his brother Qais were arrested in March 2007 and accused of organizing a raid on a local government headquarters in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers on Jan. 20, 2007.
"They freed them? The American military did?" asked Danny Chism of Donaldsonville, La., whose son, Spc. Johnathan Bryan Chism, was killed. "Somebody needs to answer for it."
But the case of the Khazali brothers has morphed beyond the Karbala attack into a major political issue, involving the British government and Iraq's Shiite-led government trying to resolve differences with rival Shiite factions.
Two months after the Khazali brothers were arrested, gunmen believed to be from the League seized British management consultant Peter Moore and four bodyguards in central Baghdad.
Secret negotiations have been under way for months for their release in exchange for freedom for the Khazali brothers and others from the League.
The U.S. military referred questions to the Iraqi government. "His release is part of the national reconciliation effort," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. "We are not part of these negotiations, but we do support the release of the hostages."
A British Foreign Office spokesman, who declined to be identified in line with department policy, said the release was part of "reaching out to groups that are willing to set aside violence in favor of taking part in the political process."
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States gave Khazali to the Iraqi government and was not involved in his final release.