The case of Ali Musa Daqduq, one of the most senior Hezbollah figures ever to have been in U.S. custody, threatens to become a heated political issue in the U.S., with Republican critics accusing the administration of botching the affair.
The Lebanese national allegedly was a key link between Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, and violent Shi’ite “special groups” held responsible by the Pentagon for numerous deadly attacks targeting American troops.
Counterterrorism specialist Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy described Daqduq this week as “one of the most senior and dangerous Hezbollah commanders ever apprehended.”
Daqduq, suspected in the 2007 killings of five American soldiers – four of whom were abducted and murdered – was in U.S. hands until late last year when he was handed over the Iraqi authorities shortly before the last troops left Iraq.
At the time some GOP lawmakers, having unsuccessfully pressed earlier for Daqduq to be tried before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, expressed grave concerns that he would never be held to account for his actions.
Republicans Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.) said in a statement they were “deeply concerned that Daqduq will never have to answer for his involvement in killing U.S. citizens, that he could be released from Iraqi custody for political reasons, and that he would then return to the fight against the United States and our friends.”
But White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Iraqis had assured the U.S. that justice would be done: “We take this case extremely seriously, and for that reason have sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes.”
A U.S. military commission subsequently filed charges, including counts of murder and terrorism against Daqduq, and lodged a formal extradition application. But Iraqi courts dropped charges against him and last week the country’s Central Criminal Court threw out the extradition request.
The U.S. government is appealing the ruling yet appears reluctant to pressure its ostensible partners in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, in public at least.
“We continue to believe that Daqduq should be held accountable for his crimes,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a press briefing Thursday. “And while we do strongly oppose recent decisions by the Iraqi judiciary, protections for the accused are built into the judicial systems, including our own,” he said.
“We await another decision from the Iraq – from their highest appeal court.”
A reporter pointed out to Ventrell that “the United States has really invested a great deal of time, effort, and money in Iraq.”
“Well, we do have a good and robust and strategic partnership with the Iraqi government,” the spokesman said. “As you know, our Strategic Framework Agreement, which was signed a few years ago, really is the outline for our deep and intensive and ongoing relationship with the Iraqi government on a number of fronts.”
‘What they have fought and bled for’
Nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. armed forces were killed in Iraq between the March 2003 invasion to topple the Ba’athist regime and the withdrawal at the end of last year.
The five soldiers killed in the incident for which Daqduq is blamed – an attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala by assailants wearing U.S.-style fatigues – were Capt. Brian Freeman, 31, of Temecula, Calif., 1st Lieutenant. Jacob Fritz, 25, of Verdon, Neb., Spc. Jonathan Chism, 22, of Gonzales, La., Pfc. Shawn Falter, 25, of Cortland, N.Y., and Pfc. Johnathon Millican, 20, of Trafford, Ala.
In a strongly-worded speech on the Senate floor last Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) criticized the administration’s handling of the affair and voiced concern that a similar approach could see high-value detainees walk free in Afghanistan when that mission ends.
“The administration had years to transfer Daqduq to our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but because the president seemed to lack the political will to do so – I think because of campaign promises he improvidently made – one of the most dangerous, reprehensible terrorists ever in our custody will likely be allowed to go free.”
Sessions said President Obama’s responsibilities as commander-in-chief include defending “the honor, the dignity, and the credibility of the United States.”
“He has a duty to those magnificent troops who have answered his call to go into harm’s way to execute U.S. policy. Part of that duty is not to give away what they have fought and bled for. That includes not giving up prisoners whom these soldiers have, at great risk and effort, captured,” he said.
He urged the administration to “act forcefully now.”
“With strong action we may be able to ensure that Daqduq is not released, that he is able to be tried for the murders he committed and the American soldiers he killed.”
In a policy analysis this week, Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote that the Maliki administration “has apparently concluded that the political cost of holding a senior Hezbollah commander accountable – in Iraq or the United States – is too high.”
“Baghdad wants to balance its relationships with Iran and Washington, and this case stands at the crux of the two,” he said. “Accordingly, Washington must make clear at the highest levels of the Iraqi government that there will be tangible consequences to summarily freeing an Iranian proxy with American blood on his hands.”
Daqduq’s lawyer, Abdul-Mahdi al-Mitairi, has said he hopes his client will be released before the end of Ramadan. The Islamic fasting month ends around August 19.