On the evening of January 20, 2007, U.S. soldiers serving in the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq, were attacked by an Iranian-backed terrorist squad. The raid was carried out with precision. At 5 p.m., a convoy of five vehicles made to look just like SUVs used by U.S. contractors entered the Karbala base. The terrorists, estimated at 12 men, opened fire with assault rifles and threw hand grenades. One U.S. soldier was killed in the firefight and four others were captured. The attackers fled the base but were tracked by Iraqi police after they passed through a checkpoint.
With the police in hot pursuit, the kidnappers decided to execute the hostages and abandon their vehicles. Three of the U.S. soldiers were found dead in neighboring Babil; the fourth was wounded and died before he could receive proper treatment.
The U.S. military suspected that the Karbala assault was no average attack. The raid had required specific intelligence, intensive training, and major resources (weapons, vehicles, uniforms, identification papers, radios, etc.). “The precision of the attack, the equipment used and the possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles in the compound suggests that the attack was well rehearsed prior to execution,” Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl, the spokesman for Multinational Division Baghdad, said immediately after the attack. “The attackers went straight to where Americans were located in the provincial government facility, bypassing the Iraqi police in the compound.”
The Pentagon also suspected Iran was ultimately responsible for the attack. The Quds Force, Iran’s special operations branch which has founded and supported terror groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, was a natural suspect. The Quds Force’s specialty is proxy warfare.
There was a good reason the attack was so meticulously planned. A terrorist named Qais al-Khazali was behind it. A cleric and adviser to Moktada al-Sadr, Khazali ran the Khazali Network, an Iranian-baked radical Shia terror group later known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous.
During a raid in Basra in March 2007, U.S. forces captured Khazali, his brother Laith (also a leader of the Khazali Network), and Ali Mussa Daqduq. Daqduq was a senior Hezbollah operative who was tasked by Iran to organize Shia terror groups along the same lines as Hezbollah. During a raid in Baghdad in May 2007, U.S. forces killed Azhar al Dulaimi, the tactical commander of the group.
The March raid provided a trove of information on the Shia terror groups and Iran’s involvement in the Iraqi insurgency. During a briefing on July 2, 2009, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, then the spokesman for Multi-National Forces Iraq, described the intelligence gleaned from their capture and confirmed that Iran’s Quds Force was behind the 2007 attack.
According to Bergner, a document found during the March raid “showed that the group that attacked the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala had conducted extensive preparation and drills prior to the attack. Quds Force had developed detailed information regarding our soldiers’ activities, shift changes and fences, and this information was shared with the attackers.”
Qais’s assault team was trained in Iran, and U.S. spy satellites found a mockup of the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center at the Fajr Garrison—a Quds Force training facility in Ahwaz. Qais and Daqduq admitted to U.S. interrogators that “senior leadership within the Quds Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack” and “authorized the operation.” Other documents showed that the Khazali Network was behind many other attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Despite the severity of the attacks and Qais Khazali’s known links to Iran’s intelligence services, he was nonetheless released from U.S. custody in late December, at the same time that the League of the Righteous released Peter Moore, a British contractor. Moore, along with four of his bodyguards had been kidnapped on May 29, 2007, in another well-planned raid, this time at the finance ministry in Baghdad. Immediately after the kidnapping, the League of the Righteous demanded the release of Qais, Laith, and other members of the group in exchange for their hostages.
The United States eventually buckled under pressure from Britain. The process to free Qais began last summer, when Laith and more than 100 members of the League of the Righteous were released. In exchange, the Shia terror group turned over the remains of three of the bodyguards in their custody. All three had been shot. The fourth bodyguard, who has yet to be released, is also thought to be dead.
The U.S. military has denied that a deal was cut with the Shia terror group to secure the release of the Brits and insists the release of Qais, Laith, and others to the Iraqi government was part of the “reconciliation process.” But U.S. military and intelligence officers I have spoken with disagree and say that Qais Khazali’s release was indeed part of a bargain to free the British hostages.
Qais Khazali and his ilk do not represent any legitimate Iraqi interests that can be “reconciled” and folded back into society. Their organization represents Iran, and Iran used them to sow chaos and murder and may well do so again.
The deal raises two important questions. First, why would the United States release dangerous terrorists who are directly linked to Iran’s Quds Force and who can threaten the recent security gains in Iraq? Military officers from General David Petraeus on down have gone on the record saying that Iran is still active in attempting to destabilize Iraq.
Second, did the Obama administration violate a long-standing executive order, put in place by President Ronald Reagan, that prevents negotiations with hostage takers and terrorists? Senators Jeff Sessions and Jon Kyl put this very question to President Obama in a July 2009 letter after Laith Khazali was released. The administration has yet to respond to Sessions and Kyl. But now we must wonder, once again, if this same executive order has been violated in the case of Qais Khazali.
The Khazali brothers and their terror network are responsible for the deaths of five American soldiers and numerous Iraqis. America deserves to know why they were freed.
Bill Roggio is managing editor of the website Long War Journal and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.