Saddam frees US prisoners

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President Saddam Hussein has pardoned two Americans serving eight years in jail for illegally entering Iraq from Kuwait, and ordered that they be released immediately, writes Patrick Cockburn.

The decision came after a visiting US Congressman, Bill Richardson, met the Iraqi leader in Baghdad and conveyed "a humanitarian plea from President Bill Clinton, the US Congress and the American people" to President Saddam to free the two men, according to the Iraqi News Agency.

William Barloon, 39, and David Daliberti, 41, who were arrested in March and accused of espionage, were working for US defence contractors in Kuwait when they strayed across the Iraqi border while visiting friends at Umm Qasr, near the frontier. It is not clear why Saddam has released them now.

No easing is likely of the UN embargo on Iraq, which was imposed in 1990 but has since become a cornerstone of US policy in the Gulf. In theory the embargo should be lifted when Iraq satisfies UN inspectors that it is not concealing weapons of mass destruction, but it is likely to be continued, as a weak Iraq suits the US.