BAGHDAD, Iraq – About 24 top former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime, including a biological weapons expert known as "Dr. Germ," have been released from jail, while a militant group released a video Monday of the purported killing of an American hostage.
The first results of Thursday's parliamentary election were released, with officials saying the Shiite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, got about 58 percent of the votes from 89 percent of ballot boxes counted in Baghdad province.
Across Iraq, meanwhile, demonstrations broke out to protest a government decision to raise the price of gasoline, heating and cooking fuel, and the oil minister threatened to resign over the development.
An Iraqi lawyer said the 24 or 25 officials from Saddam's government were released from jail without charges, and some have already left the country.
"The release was an American-Iraqi decision and in line with an Iraqi government ruling made in December 2004, but hasn't been enforced until after the elections in an attempt to ease the political pressure in Iraq," said the lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref.
Among them were Rihab Taha, a British-educated biological weapons expert, who was known as "Dr. Germ" for her role in making bio-weapons in the 1980s, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as "Mrs. Anthrax," a former top Baath Party official and biotech researcher, Aref said.
"Because of security reasons, some of them want to leave the country," he said. He declined to elaborate, but noted "some have already left Iraq today."
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, would say only that eight individuals formerly designated as high-value detainees were released Saturday after a board process found they were no longer a security threat and no charges would be filed against them.
Neither the U.S. military or Iraqi officials would disclose any of the names, but a legal official in Baghdad said Taha and Ammash were among those released.
The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said those released also included Hossam Mohammed Amin, head of the weapons inspections directorate, and Aseel Tabra, an Iraqi Olympic Committee official under Odai Saddam Hussein, the former leader's son.
The video from the extremist group The Islamic Army of Iraq was posted on a Web site and showed a man purportedly being shot in the back of the head. Last week, the group had claimed it had killed civilian contractor Ronald Allen Schulz, a native of North Dakota.
The video did not show the victim's face, however, and it was impossible to identify him. The victim was kneeling with his back to the camera, with his hands tied behind his back and blindfolded with an Arab headdress when he was purportedly shot. The video also showed Schulz's identity card.
A separate video, shown on a split screen, showed images of Schulz alive. The group had aired that video when he was first taken hostage earlier this month.
Schulz has been identified by the extremist group as a security consultant for the Iraqi Housing Ministry, although family and neighbors from his current home in Alaska, say he is an industrial electrician who has worked on contracts around the world.
Schulz served in the Marine Corps from 1984 to 1991. He moved to Alaska six years ago, and friends and family say he is divorced.
The German government, meanwhile, said kidnappers had freed a German aid worker and archaeologist taken hostage with her driver in northern Iraq more than three weeks ago. Susanne Osthoff, 43, was reported in good condition at the German Embassy in Baghdad. It was unclear whether Osthoff's Iraqi driver had also been freed.
The military said a U.S. Marine was killed by small arms fire Sunday in the town of Ramadi, in central Iraq. The death brought to 2,156 the number of U.S. service members killed since the start of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In other violence Monday, a suicide car bomb exploded outside a children's hospital in western Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding 11, including seven police, officials said. Police believe the bomb had targeted a convoy carrying a police colonel, who was among the injured.
In western Baghdad, gunmen attacked the convoy of Deputy Baghdad Gov. Ziad Tariq, killing three civilians and wounding three of his bodyguards, police said. Tariq was not injured.
Iraqi soldiers on Monday began Operation Moonlight, which the U.S. military described as the first large-scale operation planned and executed by soldiers of the Iraqi 1st Brigade. The mission's aim is to disrupt insurgent activity along the Euphrates River near the border with Syria.
There are five Iraqi Army companies and one U.S. Marine company taking part in the operation, said Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool.
With 89 percent of the ballot boxes counted in Baghdad province — Iraq's largest district — preliminary results showed the United Iraqi Alliance received 1,403,901 votes, or about 58 percent, while the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance party got 451,782 votes, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National List with 327,174 votes, the electoral commission said.
The commission did not say how many people voted in Baghdad province or provide further details. Baghdad is Iraq's biggest electoral district with 2,161 candidates running for 59 of the 275 seats in Iraq's parliament.
Results from southern Basra province, also mixed but predominantly Shiite, saw the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance significantly ahead, winning 612,206 votes with 98 percent of ballot boxes counted. The list headed by Allawi, a secular Shiite, was in second with 87,134 votes, while the Sunni accordance party trailed with 36,997 votes.
Kurdish parties were overwhelmingly ahead in their three northern provinces.
In a speech Sunday, President Bush praised the vote and warned against a pullout of U.S. forces. He said the election would not end violence but "means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror." He also warned that a U.S. troop pullout would "signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word."
The fuel prices were raised Sunday — some as much as nine times — to curb a growing black market, Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said.
A gallon of imported and super gasoline in Iraq was raised to about 68 cents, but Iraqis were upset by the fivefold increase. The price of locally produced gas was raised to about 48 cents per gallon, a sevenfold increase.
In Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, police fired into the air to disperse the hundreds of protesters who had gathered in front of the provincial government headquarters. The demonstrators, however, didn't leave, and scuffles broke out with police.
Drivers blocked roads and set tires on fire near fuel stations in the southern city of Basra, and hundreds demonstrated outside the governor's headquarters to protest the increases.
Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum said when the Cabinet raised prices, it also decided that the extra money would be used to support more than 2 million low-income families. Some aid money was supposed to reach the families before the increases, but that didn't happen, he said.
"Dr. Ibrahim will submit his resignation to the Iraqi government if the situation continues as is," he said, referring to himself. "We should take in consideration the living conditions and the economic situation of the citizens."
Iraq's oil minister has previously said that cheap domestic fuel prices had encouraged smuggling to other countries. Iraq's government has continued Saddam's practice of heavily subsidizing fuel prices.