BAGHDAD (AP) — A Shiite extremist group handed over a simple wooden casket containing the remains of the last U.S. soldier missing in Iraq, a prominent Iraqi lawmaker said Monday, drawing a close to a case that has anguished the American's family since his 2006 disappearance.
Shiite lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the remains of Staff Sgt. Ahmed al-Taie were turned over last week as part of a prisoner exchange agreement between the Iraqi government and the militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
The Pentagon confirmed Sunday that it had recently received remains that were verified as al-Taie's. But al-Askari's comments provide the first confirmation that Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed insurgent group, was responsible for the 2006 kidnapping of al-Taie after the Iraqi-born soldier sneaked out of the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad to visit his wife and family on a Muslim holiday.
Al-Askari said Asaib Ahl al-Haq last week acknowledged killing al-Taie within a year of his October 2006 abduction. He said he did not know exactly when al-Taie was killed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, al-Askari said he supervised the negotiations for al-Taie's body and was present when Asaib Ahl al-Haq turned over a simple wooden casket containing the remains to Iraqi authorities on Feb. 22. He said the casket was immediately transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"The Iraqi authorities did not open the casket, which was not heavy," al-Askari said. He said the negotiations for al-Taie's body had been taking place "for a while."
Al-Taie moved to the United States at age 12 after his family left Iraq in the late 1970s, when Saddam Hussein was ascending to power. His family described him as a pilot and airplane mechanic who lived with his parents in Ann Arbor, Mich.
He met his wife during a trip to Iraq shortly after Saddam's fall from power in 2003. In December 2004, he joined an Army reserve program for native speakers of Arabic and other strategic languages, and deployed a year later to Iraq, where he worked with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad until he was kidnapped in 2006.
At the time he was seized, kidnappings for ransom or political motives, mostly of Iraqis but also many foreigners, were common. The February 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque by Sunni insurgents caused retaliatory bloodshed to spiral, and death squads roamed Iraq's streets.
Al-Taie's relatives say he often met secretly with his wife at her family's home despite warnings that he was in danger of being kidnapped.
After al-Taie disappeared on Oct., 23, 2006, American commanders immediately launched a massive manhunt for him. About a week later, a family member received a ransom demand and was shown a grainy video on a hand-held device of a man whom extremists claimed was al-Taie.
Relatives demanded better proof, and negotiations with various intermediaries lasted for years. Al-Taie was last seen four months after his abduction in a video posted on the Internet by a Shiite militant faction called the Ahl al-Bayt Brigades, which is linked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the People of Righteousness, is a Shiite militant group in Iraq. It generally relies on Iran, the regional Shiite power, for support, including around $5 million in cash and weapons each month, according to Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials. Officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and their leaders live in Iran.
The Pentagon has said it recently received remains that have been confirmed as al-Taie's at the U.S. military mortuary in Dover, Del. It offered no details, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad referred questions Monday to the Pentagon.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said al-Taie's body arrived in Dover Feb. 25 and his family was notified early on Feb. 26. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitivity of the details of family notification.
Al-Askari said al-Taie's remains were handed over as part of an amnesty exchange agreement with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, under which the group will not face criminal prosecution or penalties if it disarms or turns over prisoners.
"There will be no persecution or legal measures against the Asaib people in the case of al-Taie," al-Askari said.
Al-Taie's uncle, Entifadh Qanbar, expressed resigned dismay Monday that al-Taie's killers might not be punished, but said he had not yet been notified by any government about the circumstances surrounding the killing.
"I have to see the details but I don't think a murder should stand without the law taking place," Qanbar said Monday in a telephone interview from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "Everybody who commits murders should face court."
He indicated that Iraqi authorities should take responsibility for prosecuting the killing. "I don't know if the United States could do anything without the Iraqis," Qanbar said.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.