Ex-minister escapes Green Zone prison

Iraqi-American charged with misallocating money

December 19, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 Samarrai, 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 Ayad Allawi.

A Sunni Arab who claimed ties to the insurgency, Samarrai was arrested and charged two months ago with a dozen counts of misallocating $1.5 billion of Iraqi government money. At that time, security contractors took him to the U.S. Embassy before he could be jailed, but American officials handed him over to Iraqi authorities.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman confirmed yesterday that Samarrai was no longer in prison. He said American 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 were named by Iraqi officials yesterday.

The reports on Samarrai came on a day that bombings, assassinations and sectarian death squad killings in the capital, Kirkuk and Mosul left at least 54 Iraqis dead. Among those gunned down yesterday were a police commando leader in western Baghdad and a provincial council member in Mosul

The U.S. military also reported that a soldier assigned to 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died in combat Friday. He was killed in volatile Anbar province.

There have been no suggestions that U.S. officials had a role in Samarrai'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 contribute to Iraq's image of instability and lawlessness. The flamboyant former government minister's arrest and prosecution was 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 last night, also could further damage the reputation of the U.S., which is believed by many Iraqis to have wasted and stolen billions of dollars in Iraqi revenues.

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 Samarrai 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."

Samarrai, 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 yesterday. He 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 Samarrai and two police officials in charge of guarding him at a Green Zone police station jailhouse.

"It was suspected that the policemen cooperated," said Judge Radhi Radhi, head of the country's Public Integrity Commission, which scrutinizes corruption.

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

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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