BAGHDAD Suspected Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq was freed by Iraqi authorities and flew to Lebanon on Friday after an Iraqi court acquitted him of involvement in the killing of five U.S. soldiers, his lawyer said.
The move was likely to anger the United States, which handed Daqduq over to Iraqi custody last December after failing to convince Baghdad to extradite him over his role in a 2007 kidnapping that ended in the killing of the soldiers.
"There was no reason for his detention. Last night the decision was made to release him. He is out now and arrived in Beirut two hours ago," lawyer Abdulalmehdi al-Mutiri told Reuters by phone. "There are no charges against him in Iraq. His detention was political, not legal."
Earlier this year, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told Reuters he had received assurances from Iraq it would not release Daqduq, even though an Iraqi court had cleared him of the charges.
"We continue to believe that Daqduq should be held accountable for his crimes," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"As with other terrorists who we believe have committed crimes against Americans, we are going to continue to pursue all legal means to see that Daqduq sees justice for the crimes of which he is accused," she said.
Republican Senator John McCain called the release an "outrage" and said "appropriate actions should be taken with regards to our relationship to the Iraqi government."
Asked if Washington was contemplating any retaliation against Baghdad, Nuland declined to comment. She said the United States expressed "deep disappointment" with the release but also had to respect the Iraqi justice system.
"They have said back to us that they didn't have a legal basis to continue to hold him," said Nuland.
The fate of Daqduq became a source of tension between Baghdad and Washington last year as the U.S. military prepared to withdraw from Iraq.
Daqduq was captured in March 2007 and initially said he was a deaf mute. U.S. forces accused him of being a surrogate for Iran's elite Quds force operatives and say he joined the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah in 1983.
(Reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Paul Eckert and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jackie Frank)