Thursday, February 22, 2018

American man captured by militia in Iraq released to U.N.

BAGHDAD — Followers of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday handed over to U.N. officials in Baghdad an American citizen they said had been held for nine months by the armed wing of their group.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman confirmed later Saturday that the man was an American citizen and had been transferred to the embassy. No further details were provided.

A U.N. official confirmed that Maha al-Douri, a Sadrist member of the Iraqi parliament, and the deputy parliamentary speaker had released an American to the United Nations in Baghdad on Saturday evening.

In interviews given to Iraqi media earlier in the day, Douri said that the armed wing of the Shiite political Sadrist movement, a remnant of the feared Mahdi Army called the Promised Day Brigades, had arrested the man last year.

Iraqi media reported that the man's name, as given by Douri, was Randy Michael Hultz.

A video aired on Iraqi television showed a man in military uniform standing next to Douri and another Iraqi official. A transcript provided by the BBC of a video that showed the man speaking quoted him as saying that he had deployed to Iraq as a soldier in 2003 and spent 15 months there in a military capacity. U.S. military officials did not immediately confirm or deny that assertion.

According to the transcript, the man said he later returned to Iraq as a civilian and was taken prisoner by the Promised Day Brigades on June 18 last year. He said that he had been held in different locations around Baghdad before being released for humanitarian reasons Saturday and that no exchange had been made in return for his freedom.

Among Western officials, there was some confusion about the man's identity. His name, even spelled alternatively, is not known to be that of a missing contractor. The U.S. military said in February that it had received the last body of a missing American soldier when Staff Sgt. Ahmed al-Taie's remains were handed over by a separate Shiite militia group, five years after Taie disappeared.

An official in the Sadrist movement, Hatem Baidhani, said the man had been handed over in good faith as a gesture of peace toward the United States. "We don't want to consider the U.S. a hostile state," he said. "We are welcoming them if they want to work in science and technology." He called for "positive U.S. intervention" in those areas.

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