BAGHDAD – A Hezbollah commander accused of targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq may be released from prison within weeks, his lawyer predicted Wednesday, claiming that flimsy American evidence has kept his client behind bars for nearly five years.
The case has been a thorn in diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington since the American military pullout last December. U.S. terror experts have described Ali Mussa Daqduq as among "the worst of the worst" militants and would remain a severe threat to Americans if freed.
Daqduq's attorney, Abdul-Mahdi al-Mitairi, said he expects Iraqi courts to agree that there is not enough evidence to keep him in prison.
"Legally, the investigation judge should have already released him for a lack of evidence, but he was under pressure from the Americans," al-Mitairi said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
"Now we are waiting for the case to be transferred to a criminal court in the coming few weeks, and I think he will be released after the first trial session," al-Mitairi said.
Daqduq is a Lebanese commander for Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group linked to numerous deadly attacks. U.S. officials say he trained Shiite militias in Iraq and helped plot the 2007 killing of four American soldiers in the holy city of Karbala, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad.
Daqduq was captured later that year and held in U.S. custody in Iraq as officials tried to decide where to charge him. When the American military left Iraq late last December, U.S. officials were forced to hand over Daqduq to Iraqi authorities — despite fears in Washington that he would be quietly freed by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Ali al-Moussawi, media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said he did not know if the U.S. had submitted all of its evidence in the case against Daqduq. He said the U.S. did not want to release Daqduq to Iraqi custody but had to respect Baghdad's legal system.
"The judge will decide whether he is innocent or guilty," al-Moussawi said. "Absolutely the attorney is defending him, but the last word is for the judiciary."
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not have an immediate comment.
For years, the U.S. planned to try Daqduq in an American court, and in January, Pentagon prosecutors suggested formally charging him with murder and espionage. At the time, however, U.S. officials conceded it was unclear if Iraqi authorities would turn him over to an American military tribunal.
Al-Mitairi said Iraq has charged Daqduq with terrorism and forging official documents, but he said the terror accusations are second hand.
The evidence is "not based on eyewitnesses but instead on people who just heard about the incidents," al-Mitairi said.
He also dismissed the forgery charge as lacking evidence.
Al-Mitairi said he visited Daqduq last week in prison, where he is being held in solitary confinement. He said Daqduq asked for political help from anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Shiite followers helped al-Maliki keep his job in 2010 after his party fell short of winning the most seats in parliamentary elections.
Al-Mitairi is also a Sadrist follower.
Answering a question to followers in an online message Wednesday, al-Sadr said that he has not forgotten about Daqduq but declined further comment.