By Peter Graff and Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A Shi'ite militia has handed over the body of the last U.S. soldier missing in Iraq, closing a final chapter of the war two months after U.S. troops left and more than five years after the soldier vanished while secretly visiting his wife in Baghdad.
A source in Shi'ite militia Asaib al-Haq said the group had acted as an "intermediary" in handing the body of American soldier Ahmed al-Taie to the Iraqi government. The source denied the group was behind his abduction and killing.
Sami al-Askari, a Shi'ite lawmaker close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the Iraqi government had received the body from Asaib al-Haq on Wednesday and passed it immediately to the U.S. embassy.
In Washington, a State Department official said the body had been handed over by the Iraqi government and subsequently turned over to the Defense Department, which confirmed it was that of the missing soldier.
"We received the remains from the government of Iraq, so there was no contact or association between the U.S. and AAH," the official said, referring to Asaib al-Haq.
The official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States understood that the Iraqi government had received the remains from Asaib al-Haq, but did not have details of the exchange.
"We're not aware that there was any type of deal that happened for the remains to be exchanged at this time," he said, adding that he was not in a position to speculate on the possible motives of the group in this transaction.
Al-Taie, an Iraqi-born immigrant, joined the U.S. Army to serve as an Arabic interpreter after the invasion of his native land. Shortly before enlisting, he had returned to Iraq and married a woman from Baghdad.
He went missing in 2006 at the age of 41 while visiting his wife at the height of the sectarian conflict.
'ALMOST EXPECTED THIS OUTCOME'
His uncle, Entifadh Qanbar, said the family was devastated by the news of his death but thankful at least to have a body to bury. He would be buried near the family home in Michigan.
"We almost expected this outcome, but we always had hope, especially the father and the mother. It is a big loss for them. They are quite old and I am quite worried for them," Qanbar told Reuters by telephone from Dubai.
The family has yet to be given any details of the circumstances of how the body was found or how al-Taie died, said Qanbar, who lives in the region and is a former spokesman for Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. The body was identified by the U.S. military at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, he said.
Al-Taie was the last U.S. service member listed as missing in Iraq, where nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed between the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and the withdrawal of American forces at the end of last year.
Qanbar said the family had heard nothing about al-Taie's whereabouts since 2008, when they received reports that he was sick and his captors were looking for medicine to treat him.
Asaib al-Haq is an offshoot of the Mehdi Army of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr which has claimed responsibility for the killings of scores of American troops. Washington has long accused Iran of sponsoring the group.
The Asaib al-Haq source, who asked not to be identified, said the militants were not behind al-Taie's abduction or killing. "We were simply mediators in the process of handing him over to the Iraqi government," the source told Reuters.
A Sunni Muslim, al-Taie was taken from Baghdad's religiously mixed downtown Karrada neighbourhood in October 2006. Four men were arrested days later and confessed to the kidnapping, said Qanbar, who later met the captors at a U.S. prison camp.
The captors said they had turned al-Taie over to the Mehdi Army in Sadr's stronghold Sadr City, and did not know what happened to him. From there, the trail went cold.
At the time, the Mehdi Army was embroiled in sectarian fighting against Sunni insurgents as well as conflict with U.S. forces and Iraqi government troops.
Sadr ordered the Mehdi Army to lay down its arms after it was defeated by U.S. and Iraqi government forces in 2008, but Asaib al-Haq and other splinter groups broke away and kept fighting. After U.S. troops withdrew in December, Asaib al-Haq announced it too would lay down arms and join Iraqi politics.
The abduction came at the peak of fighting in Iraq, when Shi'ite and Sunni militia were vying for control of the capital, with death squads carrying out sectarian killings on the streets and bombers striking several times a day.
With civilian death tolls in the thousands and kidnapping rife, U.S. troops were not allowed off-base on their own. But al-Taie was determined to see his wife.
"It was hell," his uncle said of the conditions in Baghdad at the time. "I had arguments with him not to leave his base and he kept doing it. He even bought a motorcycle, which was completely crazy."
"I cannot say I am glad it's over," Qanbar said of the family's five-year ordeal. "But I am relieved to at least have some sort of closure."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mohammad Zargham)