BAGHDAD (AP) — The White House has asked Iraq to hand over a Hezbollah commander who was accused of masterminding a 2007 attack that killed five American soldiers, a senior U.S. official said Thursday, though two Iraqi courts have declared him not guilty.
The case is a tricky aftermath of the long U.S. military campaign in Iraq that ended last year and has elements of both Iraqi and U.S. internal politics.
Ali Mussa Daqduq has been released from prison but is being held under house arrest in Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone as Washington seeks to bring U.S. charges against him. Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen, is considered a top threat to Americans in the Middle East and was detained for more than four years by the U.S. military before it left Iraq last December.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Antony J. Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said the U.S. wants to keep Ali Mussa Daqduq locked up for as long as legally possible.
Blinken said the Obama administration also will file a request on behalf of the victims' families for Iraq's highest appeals court to review and correct its June 25 order to free Daqduq. But he said the U.S. asked to extradite Daqduq even before the final court ruling declaring him not guilty.
"The process has not concluded," Blinken said Thursday. "It is still ongoing."
He said the White House has consistently urged Baghdad to use any legal means to prosecute and detain Daqduq "for the crimes he committed on Iraqi soil, including any crimes against U.S. service-members."
"And that has been a constant message," Blinken said.
Ali al-Moussawi, media adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said he was unaware of any U.S. request to extradite Daqduq.
The U.S. believes Daqduq plotted a brazen 2007 raid on a military camp in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala that killed five American soldiers. He is accused of working with Iranian agents to train Shiite militias to target the U.S. military.
A debate between the Democratic White House and Republicans in Congress over whether high-risk terror suspects should be brought to the U.S. for trial stalled the case against Daqduq last year. He was handed over to Iraqi authorities as required when American troops left Iraq.
Since then, two Iraqi courts have cleared Daqduq of the terrorism and forgery charges that Iraq's government lodged against him. Iraqi government officials acknowledge they have little, if any, legal basis for continuing to detain him.
U.S. auditors estimate American taxpayers have spent about $10 billion since 2003 to rebuild and strengthen Iraq's justice system after decades of abuse under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Releasing Daqduq now, however, would crimp White House efforts in the run-up to the U.S. elections this fall to show that President Barack Obama aggressively pursues terrorists.
"The judiciary system said its final say: that he's innocent and needs to be released," said Daqduq's attorney, Abdul-Mahdi al-Mitairi, a political follower of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"The political pressure from the American side has prevented Daqduq's release," al-Mitairi said. "He has not been released yet because the Iraqi government seeks U.S. support and it doesn't want to embarrass Obama ahead of the elections."
Issued quietly and without any announcement, the appeals court order leaves little doubt that Iraq will not push harder to pursue Daqduq.
"The defendant denied in the investigation and the trial any role in the crime, and his denial was not refuted by any hard evidence or any eyewitness account," the five-judge panel wrote in its decision.
Attorney Al-Mitairi said Iraq's government is violating its own laws by refusing to free his exonerated client. On Thursday, two senior Iraqi officials said the government has decided it must abide by the court rulings and release Daqduq, and it is trying to find a way to do so without angering the White House. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Blinken would not say if Daqduq would be tried in a federal civilian court or a military commission if he is extradited. Iraqi officials and legal experts note the U.S. missed its chance to prosecute Daqduq before he was transferred to Baghdad's custody.
Republican lawmakers said Daqduq was too much of a public threat to incarcerate on American soil, and wanted him to be held at the contentious military detention center at the Navy base on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Obama refused. He has promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo, which became a worldwide symbol of detainee abuses during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.
Jonathan M. Winer, a lawyer and terrorism expert who headed the State Department's international law enforcement office during the Clinton administration, said Daqduq's case essentially slipped through the cracks because it had not been carefully monitored or coordinated.
"It would be terrible to let this guy out onto the street," Winer said. "But it violates the rule of law to keep him detained. It is a huge problem, and it is the result of systematic mistakes due to not thinking it out ahead of time."
A senior Obama administration official in Washington said Pentagon's office of military commissions has prepared charges against Daqduq but cannot officially accuse him of the crimes unless he is in U.S. custody. The official predicted it's unlikely Daqduq will ever be brought to the United States. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive legal and diplomatic issue candidly.
Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale declined to comment on whether the charges would be issued but said "Mr. Daqduq should be held accountable for his crimes."
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP