BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Private guards in SUVs helped Iraq’s former electricity minister escape from a police station just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone where the dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen was being held on corruption charges, officials said Monday.

Ayham al-Samaraie, who had escaped once before after being convicted in October, walked out of the detention facility Sunday with private security experts who once protected him, said Faris Kareem, deputy head of Iraq’s Public Integrity Commission.

Kareem said the security agents were “foreign,” but provided no further details.

It was the second high-profile escape in chaotic Iraq this month. On Dec. 9, Ayman Sabawi, a nephew of Saddam Hussein serving a life sentence for bomb-making, escaped from a prison in northern Iraq aided by a police officer, authorities said.

Al-Samaraie is the only Iraqi official to have been convicted and jailed on corruption charges, although arrest warrants have been issued for about 90 former officials, including 15 ex-Cabinet ministers, according to the anti-corruption commission.

Discussing the latest incident, Ali al-Shabout, a spokesman for the anti-corruption commission, said officers at the Karadat Mariam police station allowed uniformed men who appeared to be security guards into the building. The officers realized later that al-Samaraie had left with the agents, he said.

“They didn’t discover that until they went into his room later and found he was missing,” al-Shabout said.

Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, which is in the Green Zone, said American officials had been in touch with al-Samaraie in prison to provide basic consular services for the U.S. citizen and were aware of the report that he was missing.

“There are conflicting reports surrounding his disappearance,” Fintor said. “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.”

Kareem said al-Samaraie had been convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison for ordering the purchase of a $750,000 generator for the town of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, even though he had received a report that the equipment was broken.

A judge threw out the conviction on appeal several days ago, but al-Samaraie had been scheduled to appear in court Monday, Kareem said.

He still faces trial on 12 other counts of corruption. The charges concern an estimated $2 billion in missing funds for contracts on rebuilding Iraq’s electrical infrastructure.

After al-Samaraie’s first escape, a few days after his conviction, Iraqi officials caught him at the Baghdad airport with a Chinese passport, Kareem said.

A Sunni Arab political figure, al-Samaraie was a member of the transitional government set up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He is believed to have had contacts with Sunni Arab insurgents and tried to persuade them to put down their weapons and join the political process.

Earlier this year, insurgents staged a mass prison break that freed 33 inmates, more than half of them fellow fighters. About 100 masked gunmen stormed the Muqdadiyah prison northeast of Baghdad in March, cutting phone wires, freeing all the inmates and leaving behind a scene of devastation and carnage – 20 dead policemen, burned-out cars and a smoldering jailhouse. At least 10 attackers were killed.

In violence Monday, a car bomb killed five people and wounded at least 19 near a vegetable market in the southern Sunni area of Sadiya.

Late in the day, police said they had found 44 bodies across the capital, some of them handcuffed, blindfolded and showing signs of torture – often the hallmarks of reprisal killings by Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab death squads.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of three U.S. military personnel, raising to 60 the number of Americans killed in December. One soldier died when a Bradley fighting vehicle rolled over north of Baghdad on Monday, and a Marine and a soldier died of combat wounds in separate incidents Friday and Saturday, it said.

At least 2,948 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The Iraqi Red Crescent shut down its Baghdad operations Monday, a day after gunmen seized 30 of the aid group’s workers and volunteers. Sixteen guards, drivers and other workers, along with two visitors and three guards from the nearby Dutch Embassy, were released after several hours in captivity, the Red Crescent said.

“We gave orders to our Baghdad staff to stop working till further notice. We renew our calls for the release of the kidnapped persons,” said Mazin Abdellaha, the Iraqi Red Crescent’s secretary-general.

Iraqi police said American troops stormed a house in southeastern Baghdad, killing one man. Referring to the same incident, the U.S. military said troops killed one terrorist and detained two suspects after coming under fire at a suspected al-Qaida hideout.

Late Monday, gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades attacked two Sunni mosques in Ghazaliyah, a neighborhood in western Baghdad, but armed residents forced them to flee, authorities said. Police said there were no reports of casualties.



AP correspondent Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-18-06 1813EST


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