Officials from Hussein era freed

Militants release tape purporting to show killing of American hostage


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A group of high-ranking Iraqi officials from the previous regime, including two female biological weapons experts known as Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax, have been released after almost three years in detention, American officials said yesterday.

The releases came as violence again struck across the country and as an Islamic militant group released a videotape that it claimed showed the execution of an American hostage kidnapped earlier this month.

Dubbed "Dr. Germ" for her involvement in Saddam Hussein's biological weapons, Rihab Taha was one of eight people released, according to the U.S. military. Another was Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a former top Baath Party official known as "Mrs. Anthrax."

On the deck of cards showing the most wanted officials from Saddam Hussein's regime, Ammash was the five of hearts for her role in Iraq's biological warfare program.

The Bush administration pointed to the existence of a clandestine program to develop weapons of mass destruction as the reason for invading Iraq in March 2003, but the so-called WMDs were never found.

American officials deemed that the eight prisoners no longer posed a security threat and released them Saturday, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq. The U.S. military also announced the death Sunday of a Marine assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) who was shot during combat in Ramadi.

While U.S. officials would confirm the release of only eight prisoners, Associated Press quoted Iraqi attorney Badee Izzat Aref as saying that 24 or 25 officials were released. His statement could not be immediately confirmed.

Yesterday, a group known as the Islamic Army in Iraq posted a video and a statement on the Internet showing a man on his knees, blindfolded and handcuffed, as he is shot from behind by a gunman. Whether the footage showed Ronald Schulz, an American contractor in Baghdad, was unclear. In its statement the group said that "the arrogance of Bush was a major reason for his killing."

Schulz was allegedly abducted in Baghdad by the Islamic Army in Iraq, which is believed to have ties to Abu Mussab Zarqawi. On Dec. 6, the group issued a statement on the Web, threatening to kill him unless all prisoners in Iraq were released. Two days later, the group announced that Schulz had been executed.

A number of Westerners have been kidnapped recently. A German archaeologist was reported released in recent days, but four peace workers - an American, a Briton and two Canadians - were still missing yesterday after they disappeared Nov. 26. Their kidnappers have demanded the release of all prisoners in Iraq

Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped and held for ransom by criminals during the past two years as the security situation has deteriorated and violence has flared across the country.

The 24 hours ending last night were no exception.

Iraqi officials said the various attacks began Sunday evening when gunmen halted a truck carrying construction material, shooting five drivers and torching the convoy headed for Baqubah. Yesterday morning, assailants fired on a convoy carrying a Baghdad official, killing three of his guards and injuring him, another guard and a doctor passing by.

A bomber exploded a car bomb prematurely in a city east of Baqubah, injuring four people. In Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives as an Iraqi police colonel drove by. The blast killed two civilians and injured the colonel, two bodyguards and five other civilians.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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