BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Saddam Hussein”s weapons experts, known as "Dr Germ" and "Mrs Anthrax," are being released by U.S. forces, an Iraqi lawyer said on Monday, and the U.S. military confirmed several "high-value detainees" were being freed.
The U.S. State Department said Rihab Taha, who was dubbed Dr. Germ by the popular press in the West and admitted to producing germ warfare agents, was released because U.S. forces could not justify keeping her as a security threat.
"Her internment was no longer necessary for imperative reasons of security," a State Department spokesman, Justin Higgins, said in answer to a question by telephone. "She has been fully screened. We do not believe she is linked to terrorists or other violent actors in Iraq."
The State Department said it had no more details about any other releases over the last few days.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said eight leading detainees had been freed on Saturday.
He said they were among 27 prisoners, considered senior members of the administration overthrown by U.S. forces in 2003, who now posed no threat to security, were neither charged with crimes nor material witnesses and had no intelligence value.
Johnson declined to identify any of the detainees or comment on the fate of those still held prisoner.
Lawyers said Tareq Aziz, Saddam”s right-hand man in diplomacy, was among other detainees being considered for release.
Baghdad lawyer Badia Aref said 26 people, including five who were ill, were now in the process of being released. He said among them
were Huda Ammash, nicknamed "Mrs Anthrax" by the media, and Taha.
Aref declined to say whether they had already left Baghdad airport, where they were held along with Saddam and dozens of others.
"There were no accusations against them. Other lists are being prepared and might include Tareq Aziz," said Aref, who acts as an attorney for Aziz and Ammash.
Ammash and Taha were both detained in May 2003, shortly after the overthrow of Saddam.
Lawyers acting for Ammash have said she is gravely ill with cancer. She was the only woman included in the U.S. military”s list of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam”s regime, and was the Five of Hearts in a deck of cards issued to help U.S. soldiers identify fugitives.
She has a master”s degree from Texas Women”s University and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Missouri.
Taha was not on the U.S. most-wanted list but was described by American officials as a former director of the Iraqi bacterial and biological warfare program.
Taha said the germ warfare agents she produced were destroyed long before the U.S. invasion.
Taha has a doctorate in plant toxins from the University of East Anglia in Britain, and is married to Amir Muhammed Rasheed, a former Iraqi oil minister also in U.S. detention.
The releases come days after President George W. Bush said his decision to invade Iraq followed bad intelligence about Saddam”s weapons program.
They also come as Iraq”s Shi”ite- and Kurdish-led government is trying to reach out to Saddam”s fellow minority Sunni Arabs following a successful election on Thursday that saw most Sunnis take part for the first time and Sunni rebels hold their fire.
"They want to reduce the political tension and Jaafari wants to pull the rug from under his opponents” feet," Aref said of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.
Saddam and seven others are on trial for crimes against humanity; hearings resume on Wednesday. Dozens of other leading supporters remain in jail.
Two ministers in Saddam”s last government were waiting to fly from Baghdad to Amman after serving nearly three years in a U.S.-run prison, their relatives in the Jordanian capital said.
The U.S. military is holding some 14,000 Iraqi prisoners, most of whom have not been charged.