London // Iran masterminded the kidnapping of a British IT consultant who has been freed in Baghdad after two-and-half years in captivity, it was claimed yesterday. Peter Moore and his four British bodyguards - three of whom were later shot by their captors while the fourth is still missing, presumed dead - were taken to Iran within a day of being seized at the Iraqi ministry of finance by about 40 men disguised as policemen, according to an 18-month investigation by a British newspaper.
Gen David Petraeus, who heads the US Central Command in the region, has given credence to the report after telling the BBC that he "was 90 per cent certain" that the Britons had been held in Iran. The UK's foreign office said yesterday that it had no evidence of Iranian involvement but speculation grew that the reason Mr Moore was targeted in the first place was because the computer programmes he was devising indicated that millions of dollars of aid flowing into Iraq were being diverted to groups supported by Iran.
Mr Moore, 32, was released on Wednesday as, almost simultaneously, Qais al Khazaali , a 26-year-old Shia cleric and leader of the Iranian-backed Righteous League, was handed over by the US to the Iraqi authorities, who are expected to free him within days. The release of al Khazaali, who was captured by British special forces two months before Mr Moore's kidnapping, had been a key demand of the Britons' captors.
However, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, denied yesterday that there had been any deal involving al Khazaali, who is suspected of being behind the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers. "The British government does not make substantive concessions to hostage takers, anywhere and any place, and there was no such substantive concession in this case," he said. Nevertheless, it seems more than coincidence that the two events coincided, especially as the release last June of al Khazaali's brother Laith was followed shortly afterwards by the handing over to the British authorities in Baghdad of the bodies of two of Mr Moore's bodyguards.
According to the investigation by The Guardian newspaper, sources both in Iraq and Iran have confirmed the latter's involvement in the kidnapping of the Britons, which was initially claimed by a group calling itself the Islamic Shia Resistance. An unnamed, former Revolutionary Guard is quoted as saying: "It was an Iranian kidnap, led by the Revolutionary Guard, carried out by the al-Quds brigade. "My contact works for al-Quds. He took part in the planning of the kidnap and he watched the kidnapping as it was taking place.
"He told me that they spent two days at the Qasser Shiereen camp. They then took them deep inside Iran." Qasser Shiereen is a Revolutionary Guards' camp in Iran, just across from the Iraq border. A current Iraqi government minister, also unnamed but said to have close links to Iran, also told the newspaper that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were behind the kidnapping. "You don't think for a moment that those militia groups from Sadr City could have carried out a high-level kidnapping like this one," he is quoted as saying.
However, Sami al Askari, an Iraqi MP who was involved in negotiations with Mr Moore's kidnappers and who is an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki - denied claims in The Guardian that he had flown to Iran to try and win Mr Moore's freedom. Additionally, Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest known as the "Vicar of Baghdad", said that he had been involved in talks with the hostage-takers until last week and had not been given any indication of Iranian involvement.
A spokesman for the foreign office in London said: "We are not in a position to say with any certainty where they were held during each and every single day of their two-and-a-half years in captivity." Britain is reluctant to point the finger at Iran at a time when relations between the two countries are already at an all-time low, with Tehran blaming the UK for fomenting the continuing, bloody unrest on the streets by Iranian opposition groups.
The British also do not want to jeopardise the negotiations that are still going on for the return of Alan McMenemy, the fifth hostage who, like the other bodyguards, is believed to have been shot dead by his captors. For his part, al Khazaali, who was once spokesman for the firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, looks set to become a prominent player in mainstream Iraqi politics. The release of Mr Moore appears to clear the way for his group to field candidates in the national elections later this year and, perhaps, for al Khazaali to take over the leadership of the Righteous League from the group's current, Iran-based leader, Akram al Kabi.
Mr Moore, from Lincoln, who had been working for the US management consultancy Bearingpoint in Iraq, spent his first night of freedom at the British Embassy in Baghdad. He remained there yesterday, receiving medical attention and psychiatric evaluation. Mr Miliband said that he would be flown back to the UK "as soon as possible". Pauline Sweeney, Mr Moore's stepmother, said after speaking to him on the phone that he "sounded well and was cracking jokes".