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U.S. Hostage In Iraq Freed After 9 Months

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US HOSTAGE IRAQ
Iraq riot police march during their graduation ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. The federal police training school graduated some 300 cadets on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) | AP


By Peter Graff

BAGHDAD, March 17 (Reuters) - A militia loyal to Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr freed an American former soldier on Saturday after holding him captive in Baghdad for nine months.

The American, identified as Randy Michaels, was shown on television in a U.S. military uniform with no insignia, flanked by two members of parliament from Sadr's movement, including the parliament's first deputy speaker.

He was handed over to the United Nations mission in Baghdad, which said it was in touch with the U.S. embassy.

The Sadrist lawmakers described him as an American soldier, but Michaels said he was a former service member working in a civilian capacity at the time he was captured, last June.

The former captive said he had been held by the Yom al-Maoud, or Promised Day Brigade, an offshoot of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia which remained armed after Sadr disbanded most Mehdi Army units in 2008.

"I was taken inside Baghdad and have been kept in and around different locations within the city by al-Maoud. It was explained to me that my release has been for humanitarian purposes and there was no exchange involved," he said in remarks shown on Iraq's Bagdadiya television.

Maha al-Douri, a lawmaker from Sadr's bloc said: "We declare the release of the American soldier, Randy Michaels, without any compensation, according to the instructions of Moqtada al-Sadr, as a gift from him to the soldier's family and to his people, and to correct the image of Islam."

Qusay al-Souhail, deputy parliament speaker, said the leadership of the Promised Day Brigade had made the decision to free their captive in light of the confirmation that U.S. troops had withdrawn from Iraq.

The U.N. mission in Iraq, UNAMI, said in an e-mailed statement that Suhail and Douri had handed over "an American citizen whom they said has been in detention for about nine months by an Iraqi group.

"UNAMI is currently in contact with the US Embassy in Baghdad to follow up on the matter. No further comments at this stage."

The U.S. embassy could not immediately be reached and U.S. officials in Washington were not immediately available for comment. The Pentagon has said none of its serving troops are believed to be held in Iraq since last month when it recovered the remains of the last missing soldier.

Nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq in December, with the exception of a few hundred service members stationed as part of the diplomatic mission at its embassy.

The U.S. mission still includes 2,000 diplomats and, as of last year, 14,000 civilian contractors. The embassy says the number of contractors has declined since then but does not release updated figures.

Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters controlled swathes of Baghdad and southern Iraq until they were largely defeated by Iraqi government forces and U.S. troops in 2008.

Sadr disbanded most of the Mehdi Army and joined mainstream politics, and his followers are part of the governing power-sharing coalition.

Some Mehdi Army offshoots continued to battle U.S. forces until they withdrew, and have claimed responsibility for kidnappings of foreigners. Those groups have mainly said they are disarming now that U.S. troops have left. (Additional reporting by Raheem Salman, Suadad al-Salhy and Wathiq Ibrahim; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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