U.S. forces say release former Iraq minister

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A former Iraqi deputy health minister loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was released from U.S. custody on Wednesday, two days after terrorism charges against him were dropped, the U.S. military said.

Hakim al-Zamili, a leading member of the Shi’ite Sadrist bloc, and Brigadier-General Hameed al-Shimari, the Health Ministry’s former security chief, were tried on charges of abusing their position to allow sectarian killings.

The trial ended abruptly on Monday when the charges against them were dropped for a lack of evidence and witnesses, defense and prosecution lawyers said.

Their trial was seen as a test of the willingness of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to prosecute senior officials accused of corruption and of fomenting sectarian bloodshed.

U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said the pair were freed after a request for their release was received from the government of Iraq.

“Yes, they have been released,” Bergner told a news conference in Baghdad, adding that they had been held at the request of the Iraqi government.

About 200 supporters gathered outside Zamili’s home in Sadr City, a sprawling Shi’ite slum in northeast Baghdad that is one of Sadr’s main power bases, after his release.

Several sheep were slaughtered for a celebration feast, a Reuters witness said.

Zamili was the first senior Iraqi official to face terrorism charges since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

He and Shimari were arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces in February 2007 at the height of fighting between majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni Muslims that threatened to tip Iraq into all-out sectarian civil war.

Sadrist lawmakers had demanded their release after the charges were dropped and that Zamili be paid compensation.

He and Shimari were charged after several people accused them of corruption and masterminding the kidnappings and killings of their family members.

Shi’ites loyal to Sadr have long complained of being targeted for arrest by U.S. and Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq. Sadr’s feared Mehdi Army militia fought two pitched battles with U.S. forces in the south in 2004.

The U.S. military says it only arrests those it accuses of ignoring Sadr’s ceasefire order, which was first issued last August and was renewed for another six months in February.