Iraq releases former top Saddam loyalist

Iraq releases former top Saddam loyalist Baghdad: The Iraqi government has released from prison a top Saddam Hussein loyalist after he was found innocent of helping the former regime punish opponents by draining the country's fabled marshlands, a judge said on Wednesday.

Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad was No 54 out of 55 on a former US military list of most-wanted Saddam officials.

Iraqi High Tribunal spokesman Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahib Yaseen said al-Muhammad was recently released from a prison just outside Baghdad after being cleared of the charges in the marshlands draining case. The trial ended this week.

Al-Muhammad was a Baath Party regional command chairman and militia commander from Anbar Province. He was captured in January 2004.

He "was proven innocent because of a lack of evidence," Yaseen said.

The US military said it did not have any legal authority in whether to release al-Muhammadi, and referred all questions to the Iraqi justice ministry.

The draining of marshlands illustrated Saddam's ruthlessness in pursuing opponents.

A Sunni Muslim, Saddam built a massive network of dams and earthen walls to dry the marshes to punish Shiite rebels who hid there after staging an uprising against his regime. By the time Saddam was overthrown in 2003, the marshes had shrunk by 90 per cent from their size in the 1970s.

Another among the 32 defendants tried for the draining of marshlands was Mizban Khudr Hadi. Also a former Baath party regional commander and No 23 on the most-wanted list, Hadi was convicted and sentenced to death in the case.

He was earlier also convicted in a separate case, on charges of helping to plan the forced displacement of Kurds from northeastern Iraq.