The release of the first of five British hostages kidnapped in Baghdad two years ago may be imminent after the US military released a senior Shia militia leader from prison.
The freeing of Laith al-Khazali, an important member of Asaib al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia group, marks a crucial breakthrough in efforts to secure the return of Peter Moore, a computer expert, and four British security men seized with him.
The kidnappers have demanded the release of Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib al-Haq, his brother Laith and other militants, in return for the five Britons who were captured while working in the Iraqi Finance Ministry in a highly organised raid in May 2007 by men dressed as Iraqi policemen.
A senior Iraqi politician in Baghdad said that he expected Qais al-Khazali, the most important of the Iraqis whose release is demanded by the kidnappers, to be handed over by US military forces to the Iraqi government in the next five days. They would then free him, opening the way for further releases of the British hostages.
A solution appears to have been found by Asaib al-Haq promising the Iraqi government that it would renounce violence and join the political process. This enabled the Iraqi government to say that the group could not do so while it held hostages, but it also suggested to the US that Asaib al-Haq could not cease armed actions while its leaders were in prison.