BAGHDAD The U.S. military freed two former Health Ministry officials Wednesday after an Iraqi court dropped charges of kidnapping, murder, and corruption stemming from Shiite militia activity.
Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shimmari, who was in charge of the ministry's security force, returned to their homes in Baghdad and began greeting visitors. The court dropped the charges on Monday.
Minority Sunnis have viewed the case as a major test of the judiciary in this Shiite-dominated country, and the ruling was likely to hurt U.S. efforts to promote national reconciliation between the Muslim sects.
Al-Zamili and al-Shimmari were accused of using their positions to help the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to al-Sadr, carry out sectarian killing sprees by letting them use ambulances and hospitals to find and slay Sunni targets.
The allegations highlighted some of the worst sectarian violence that broke out after the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing by Sunni insurgents of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Al-Zamili erected a large tent next his house in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City slum to receive guests, who crowded around him congratulating him. Most of the visitors were officials from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's various political offices.
Some cried as they embraced him, while others offered words of encouragement and praised "his courageous stance."
"I have been released this morning from the airport. My guards received me there and took me home to Sadr City," he told The Associated Press in an interview. He was alluding to a U.S.-run detention facility near Baghdad's international airport.
He charged that during his year in jail, he came under intense "psychological pressure" from the American military.
"In my detention, the Americans practiced psychological pressure," he said, adding that he was kept in solitary confinement. "During the interrogations the occupying forces threatened that the judge would convict me and I would be executed."
The trial began Sunday after a delay because witnesses failed to show up for the start of the case last month. Officials at the time did not say why the witnesses did not appear, but they noted that Iraq does not have a witness protection program.
On Monday, U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said "there remain serious allegations of witness intimidation and other irregularities in this case that have not yet been fully or transparently resolved within the Iraqi system."
Al-Zamili described those who were to testify against him as "false witnesses" who had been promised visas to the United States.
"There was American interference. False witnesses were given visas to the United States," he said. "They falsely accused me of kidnapping and killing operations because I had evidence against them which show their administrative corruption."
After al-Zamili's arrest last year, the U.S. military said without mentioning his name that he was believed to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army "to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens."