BAGHDAD The U.S. military freed a Reuters photographer in Iraq on Wednesday, almost a year and a half after snatching him from his home in the middle of the night and placing him in military detention without charge.
The U.S. military has never said exactly why it detained Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed -- who worked for Reuters as a freelance TV cameraman and photographer -- and locked him away for so long, saying the evidence against him was classified.
"How can I describe my feelings? This is like being born again," Jassam told Reuters by telephone as he was greeted emotionally by his family.
U.S. and Iraqi forces smashed in the doors of Jassam's house in Mahmudiya town, south of Baghdad, in September 2008 and whisked him away, first to Camp Bucca, a desert prison on the Iraq-Kuwait border, then the smaller Camp Cropper detention center near Baghdad airport.
Jassam is one of several Iraqi journalists working for foreign news organizations who have been detained by the U.S. military, often for months at a time, since the 2003 U.S. invasion. None has ever been charged, triggering criticism from international journalism rights groups.
"I am very pleased his long incarceration without charge is finally over," Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger said.
"I wish the process to release a man who had no specific accusations against him had been swifter."
In Mahmudiya, friends and relatives crowded into Jassam's small family home, greeting him with hugs, tears and sweets.
"I still cannot believe my son is next to me," said his mother, Fadhila Alwan. "Thanks be to God. I cannot speak. I will keep him in my arms for days but I will not be able to get enough of him."
The U.S. military has asserted that Jassam was a "security threat" because of "activities with insurgents," it said last year, without giving details.
The term "insurgents" generally refers to Sunni Islamist groups. Jassam is a Shi'ite Muslim.
The military said on Wednesday he was freed under a security pact, effective last year, which required the United States to hand over its thousands of Iraqi detainees to Iraqi authorities.
"As such, detainees that are approved for release by the government of Iraq will be released according to their threat level. It was his time to be released," the U.S. military said.
The U.S. military still has almost 6,000 detainees who must be handed to Iraqi authorities. If they face Iraqi criminal charges they will be tried, if not they will be freed.
The Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled in 2008 that there was no case against Jassam.
A month before arresting him, U.S. forces detained Reuters cameraman Ali Mashhadani and held him for three weeks without charge, the third time he had been detained.
"This is happy news but at the same time sad news," said Ziad al-Ajili, head of The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, and Iraqi press lobby group. "Who is going to compensate Ibrahim for the 17 months he spent in prison innocent of all the accusations the American army made against him?"
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami; Writing by Jack Kimball and Michael Christie; editing by Tim Pearce)