US frees 'Dr Germ and Mrs Anthrax' in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Two scientists once at the centre of Saddam Hussein's efforts to develop biological weapons have been released from custody in Iraq where they had been held without charge for more than two-and-a-half years.

Unidentified officials in Iraq, told Associated Press yesterday that Rihab Taha, dubbed "Dr Germ", and Huda Salih Ammash, known as "Mrs Anthrax", were among 25 former senior officials from Saddam's regime released from detention over the weekend.

An Iraqi lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref, said some of the prisoners released were his clients. "The release was an American-Iraqi decision and in line with an Iraqi government ruling made in December 2004, but hasn't been enforced until after the elections in an attempt to ease the political pressure in Iraq," he said. "Because of security reasons, some of them want to leave the country ... Some have already left Iraq today."

The US had previously refused to release the women on the grounds that they were "high value detainees".

Dr Taha, who completed a PhD in plant toxins at the University of East Anglia, which she attended between 1980 and 1984, was cited by the British government in its dossier of September 2002 which claimed she had played a leading role in the manufacture of anthrax and other biological agents. In May, 2003, following the US and British invasion, Dr Taha, was among a number of former officials who gave themselves up to coalition forces.

Fresh attention was drawn to the two scientists last September when insurgents demanded the release of unidentified Iraqi women prisoners in exchange for sparing the life of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, an engineer from Liverpool. Two other engineers captured along with Mr Bigley, Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, were executed almost immediately but the kidnappers - apparently linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - said the Briton's life would be spared if the women were released. Coalition officials said Dr Taha and Dr Ammash were the only women being held.

Shortly afterwards, the Iraqi justice ministry said Dr Taha would be released on bail because she had cooperated with authorities. However, this arrangement was scuppered when the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, announced there would be no negotiations with terrorists.

Shortly afterwards, iIraq's Interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, announced that neither Dr Taha nor Dr Ammash would be released. Mr Bigley was beheaded two weeks later.

Yesterday, a coalition spokesman, Lt Col Barry Johnson, said that on Saturday night the US released eight people formerly designated as "high-value". He said the prisoners - who he would not identify - had been released after a review board decided they were no longer a security threat.

Dr Ammash reportedly has cancer.

Reports said those released also included Hossam Mohammed Amin, the former head of the weapons inspections directorate; Aseel Tabra, an Iraqi Olympic Committee official; General Dhiaa Maher al-Tikriti; Ibrahim al-Ani, an intelligence official and Hamid al-Janabi, a prison director.

Last year it was reported that Dr Taha had explained to US officials what had happened to 1,800 gallons of anthrax which had been unaccounted by UN inspectors. Dr Taha told inspectors the chemicals had been stored close to a presidential palace. After the anthrax was deactivated the affair had been hushed up out of embarrassment at the chemical being stored close to one of Saddan Hussein's residences.

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