BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq”s national security adviser said on Saturday he wanted to re-arrest Saddam Hussein”s former top weapons experts, as the U.S. military confirmed the release of 14 more high-ranking detainees.
Scientists Rihab Taha and Huda Ammash — "Dr Germ" and "Mrs Anthrax" to the Western media — were among eight former senior figures under Saddam freed on Dec. 17. Along with several of the 14 more now technically freed, they appear to be still in U.S. care for their own protection, awaiting flights abroad.
A lawyer for Ammash and others dismissed the announcement of Iraqi arrest warrants as "pure theatre", saying the government had agreed to a deal under which, he said, U.S. forces had freed the 22 Saddam aides on condition they leave the country.
National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said after he met top Shi”ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf that he would not accept their being at liberty: "There are warrants of arrest for them issued by Iraqi judicial authorities and if they are released, we”ll arrest them."
The Shi”ite Islamist-led government, bolstered by last week”s election success, is clearly eager that supporters see it as being tough on Saddam, now on trial, and his followers. Many minority Sunni Arabs, dominant under the old regime, view the government as vindictive and accuse it of abusing human rights. U.S. officials have declined formally to name those freed.
"The 22 individuals no longer posed a security threat to the people of Iraq and to the Coalition forces," U.S. commander General George Casey said on Saturday in a joint statement with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.
U.S. forces "therefore, had no legal basis to hold them any longer", the statement went on, adding: "The detainees have been released in Iraq. We have not transported any of them outside Iraq or provided them with passports or other travel documents."
Badia Aref, a Baghdad lawyer, said his client Ammash and the other former prisoners were in the process of leaving the country after being given passports by the Iraqi government on condition they stay away for at least three years.
Dismissing Rubaie”s comments, he said the U.S. authorities, had ruled that the Iraqi cases against the 22 had insufficient basis. U.S. authorities say said they are still holding 65 high-ranking figures, including Saddam, as "high-value criminals" facing trial.
Casey and Khalilzad said: "We have had ongoing discussions over a 14-month period with the Iraqi government about releasing these detainees. The Iraqi Government was informed that the U.S. government could no longer hold these individuals."
Countering suggestions that the releases were a gesture to Sunnis after they took part peacefully in the Dec. 15 election, the Americans added: "The decision to release them was based on law, not on politics or any other consideration."
Asked where the freed prisoners were, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said he could not elaborate but added that it was a U.S. reponsibility to "safeguard them after their release".
Thirteen unnamed others are being considered for release, he said. Aref has said his client Tareq Aziz, Saddam”s deputy prime minister and main international negotiator, is among those.
Families of some of those freed had expected them to fly to neighbouring Jordan but the Jordanian government has made it clear it is unwilling to play host, even to those in transit.
It appears many are still in U.S. care, possibly at Baghdad airport, where the Camp Cropper jail houses Saddam and others facing trial for crimes against humanity and other charges.
Taha, married to Saddam”s former oil minister, is a British-trained microbiologist and Ammash, a U.S.-trained microbial genetic engineer. Both were detained by U.S. forces in May 2003.
Taha admitted producing germ warfare agents but said all such Iraqi weapons were destroyed. U.S. officials believe Ammash was instrumental in rebuilding aspects of Iraq”s biological warfare production capability during the mid-1990s.