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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: PRISON BREAK; HUSSEIN TRIAL

Private U.S. team linked to jail escape

Ex-minister held in the Green Zone for graft has fled, officials say.

December 19, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A once-prominent Iraqi American, jailed on corruption charges, was sprung from a Green Zone prison this weekend by U.S. security contractors he had hired, several Iraqi officials said.

Ayham Sameraei, a Chicago-area businessman, returned to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and assumed the position of electricity minister during the interim government of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

A Sunni Arab who claimed ties to the insurgency, Sameraei was arrested in August of this year and charged with a dozen counts of misallocating millions of dollars in Iraqi government money. He was sentenced in October to two years' imprisonment. At that time, security contractors took him to the U.S. Embassy before he could be jailed, but U.S. officials handed him over to Iraqi authorities.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman confirmed Monday that Sameraei was no longer in prison. He said U.S. officials scrambled into the evening to locate him.

"We're aware of the reports," said Lou Fintor, the spokesman. "We're looking into them. We cannot comment further until the facts are determined.

"We are coordinating with the Iraqi government, which is currently conducting an investigation into this matter."

Neither the security contractors nor their company was named by Iraqi officials Monday.

The reports about Sameraei came on a day when bombings, assassinations and sectarian death squad killings in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul left at least 54 Iraqis dead. Among those gunned down Monday were a police commando leader in the western part of the capital and a provincial council member in Mosul, a northern city.

The U.S. military also reported that a soldier assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, died in combat Friday. He was killed in the volatile western province of Al Anbar. On Monday, another soldier was killed and one was injured when their Bradley fighting vehicle rolled over north of Baghdad, the military said.

There have been no suggestions that American officials had a role in Sameraei's escape Sunday afternoon. But the B-movie scenario of a rich businessman hiring armed muscle to bust himself out of jail from inside the fortress-like, U.S.-protected enclave could further contribute to Iraq's image of instability and lawlessness. The flamboyant former government minister's arrest and prosecution were held up by Iraqi and U.S. officials as a rare example of good government prevailing in the new Iraq.

His high-profile escape, splashed across Iraqi television channels Monday night, also could further damage the reputation of the U.S., which is already believed by many Iraqis to have wasted and stolen billions of dollars in Iraqi revenue.

Iraqi officials were enraged by his escape and the suggestion that any Americans had a hand in it.

"We think that there are a lot of terrorist operations through the money that was taken through corruption," said Sheik Sabah Saadi, chairman of the Iraqi parliament's anticorruption committee. "Ayham Sameraei has announced on more than one occasion about his support for the resistance and the insurgents and even claimed he was a mediator between the resistance and other factions."

Sameraei, who courted the media even during his incarceration and recently gave a lengthy jailhouse interview to the New York Times, was nowhere to be found Monday. He had claimed all along that the charges against him were trumped up and politically motivated.

Iraqi officials suspect an inside job and have issued warrants for Sameraei and two police officials in charge of guarding him at a Green Zone police station jailhouse.

According to Iraqi anticorruption officials, several sport utility vehicles arrived Sunday at Sameraei's Green Zone jailhouse. About 10 heavily armed men identified as Americans entered the single-story police station, which is usually guarded by three to five police officers.

Here accounts diverged.

Some officials say the men asked to see Sameraei and spoke with him for half an hour before escorting him out, telling police he was wanted in regard to an unspecified judicial matter.

"When the policemen objected to his removal, [the contractors] said he was being detained by a judicial order," said the lead investigator of the escape, speaking on condition that he not be named. "They took him by force and they left."

Another official said the security contractors intimidated the police officers and quickly hustled Sameraei out without firing a shot.

"It was suspected that the policemen cooperated," said Judge Radhi Radhi, head of the country's Commission on Public Integrity, an anticorruption watchdog.

"The policemen said, 'We were outnumbered and they were armed and we didn't have any means to defend ourselves,' " Radhi said.

Yet another official said the police didn't realize the security contractors had taken Sameraei until after midnight, when officers alerted anticorruption officials.

"The police said they didn't see him getting removed," said Ali Shaboot, Radhi's deputy. "That's an indication that he might have been smuggled out."

The 12-hour lag between the moment Sameraei disappeared and the time police officers guarding him finally informed other officials raised suspicions that the officers were in on the escape plan.

*

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.

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