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U.S. Admits It Released Chief Suspect in Massacre of Shiites

May 30, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. officials on Thursday admitted that they had in custody, and then released, the main suspect in the worst single known massacre of Shiite civilians -- including men, women and children -- that took place near Hillah in central Iraq.

The release of Mohammed Jawad Neifus is sure to bring outrage against the United States among Shiite Muslims, some of whom have already alleged that the U.S. government was not serious about prosecuting war crimes suspects from the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Neifus was a major landowner in the town of Mahaweel, near Hillah, where at least 3,000 bodies have been unearthed in recent weeks of people subjected to mass executions in March and April 1991 after a Shiite uprising against Hussein following the Persian Gulf War that the United States at first encouraged, but later abandoned.

According to residents of the area, Neifus and his relatives rounded up Shiites after government troops regained control of the area, loaded them onto buses and then killed them in groups of 15 to 30 after forcing them into pre-dug mass graves.

The residents alleged that Neifus, a Baath Party activist, collected a bounty from Hussein of about $20 for each person killed.

In the area, Neifus was known as a "little Saddam Hussein."

The U.S. military is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to Neifus' recapture, U.S. Central Command said Thursday.

In a statement, Central Command said that Neifus was first detained April 26 but was released May 18 after an initial screening, the Reuters news agency said.

The release came after human rights activists had discovered the mass grave and journalists were writing detailed accounts of the massacre.

"There was nothing unusual about the story he told that alerted the [Judge Advocate General's Corps] officer to his true identity. Therefore he was cleared for release," Central Command said.

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