BAGHDAD – BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government has released from prison a top Saddam Hussein loyalist after he was found innocent of helping the former regime punish opponents by draining the country's fabled marshlands, a judge said Wednesday.
Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammadi was No. 54 out of 55 on a former U.S. military list of most-wanted Saddam officials.
Iraqi High Tribunal spokesman Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahib Yaseen said al-Muhammadi was recently released from a prison just outside Baghdad after being cleared of the charges in the marshlands draining case. The trial ended this week.
He "was proven innocent because of a lack of evidence," Yaseen said.
The U.S. military said it did not have any legal authority in whether to release al-Muhammadi, and referred all questions to the Iraqi justice ministry.
The draining of marshlands illustrated Saddam's ruthlessness in pursuing opponents.
A Sunni Muslim, Saddam built a massive network of dams and earthen walls to dry the marshes to punish Shiite rebels who hid there after staging an uprising against his regime. By the time Saddam was overthrown in 2003, the marshes had shrunk by 90 percent from their size in the 1970s.
Another among the 32 defendants tried for the draining of marshlands was Mizban Khudr Hadi. Also a former Baath party regional commander and No. 23 on the most-wanted list, Hadi was convicted and sentenced to death in the case. He was earlier also convicted in a separate case, on charges of helping to plan the forced displacement of Kurds from northeastern Iraq.
Others on the most-wanted list tried for the marshlands included former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie, the No. 27 on the list, and Aziz Saleh al-Numan, the list's No. 8, who chaired the Baath party in Baghdad. Al-Taie was sentenced to 15 years in prison and al-Numan was handed seven years behind bars.
Al-Muhammadi was the only one to be freed of the 32 defendants tried in the marshlands case. Sentences for many of the rest ranged from seven years to death by execution — although charges against some were dropped because they are being tried in unrelated cases. And others already have been executed, also in other cases.
For thousands of years, wetlands fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq's south boasted hundreds of species of birds and fish, and are said to have played an important role in the development of an agriculture-based culture that helped raise civilization to new heights.
Some biblical scholars identified the vast marshes as the site of the fabled Garden of Eden. But after the 1991 Gulf War, the marshes became a casualty of Iraq's religiously based politics.
An $11 million U.N. project removed some of the barriers and helped restore more than half of the original marshlands by 2006.
Since his release, hundreds of people have been visiting al-Muhammadi in his house in Saqlawiyah, 45 miles (75 kilometers) west of Baghdad, said a security official in the nearby city of Fallujah.
Police are guarding his house, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case with the media.
Associated Press Writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS the spelling of Saddam loyalist's family name to al-Muhammadi instead of al-Muhammad.)