As last Iraqi POW released, Noriega only US POW

Published: Thursday, August 16, 2007, 23:04 [IST]

MIAMI, Aug 16 (Reuters) The US military will soon release the last Iraqi held as an enemy prisoner of war, leaving former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega as the country's only formally recognized POW.

Iraq's former Air Force commander, Hamid Raja Shalah Al-Tikriti, was captured in June 2003 and is the last enemy POW held by coalition forces, a US military spokeswoman said.

He was the 10 of spades on the Pentagon's deck of most-wanted Iraqi playing cards. The military declined to give details of his release but said recently it would take place within two weeks.

''The threat that he would join active insurgency, terrorist groups or otherwise be a threat to security has been assessed as low,'' Air Force 1st Lt. Angela Webb, a US military spokeswoman for detainee operations in Iraq, told Reuters by e-mail.

The United States has been criticized for its stance that foreign captives it holds at the Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba and elsewhere are not prisoners of war.

Shalah commanded Iraq's air force from 2001 to 2003, during the rule of Saddam Hussein. That air force was once one of the Arab world's most formidable but it failed to launch a single operation during the US-led war to topple Hussein in 2003 and its planes were later found hidden under camouflage netting.

Shalah's release will leave Noriega as the only captive the United States recognizes as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions. He is due to be released in September from a federal prison in Miami where he is serving a drug trafficking sentence.

Noriega was a general who led Panama's military, which made him de facto leader of the country. A US judge presiding over his drug-smuggling trial in Miami granted him POW status because he surrendered to US troops that invaded Panama in 1989.

''He's the only POW in the United States,'' said Simon Schorno, a spokesman in Washington for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors enforcement of the Geneva Conventions.

ONCE HELD THOUSANDS US and coalition forces once held thousands of enemy POWs in Iraq, many of them members of the Iraqi military or government.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the number at more than 7,000 three weeks after the war began.

About 20 are still being held for criminal prosecution in the Iraqi High Tribunal, the court that convicted Hussein and condemned him to hang, said Sandra Hodgkinson, the Pentagon's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs.

They are no longer classified as POWs because they are in the legal custody of the new Iraqi government, she said.

But thousands more captives are still being held in US and oalition custody in Iraq under authority of United Nations Security Council resolutions allowing detention of those who pose a security threat, she said.

''The current estimate is somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000,'' Hodgkinson said recently.

They can continue to be held until the Security Council revokes that authority, she said.

Like the 355 captives at the US naval base in Cuba, they are not considered prisoners of war because they are not members of a regular, uniformed national military with a clear command structure and because they are accused of targeting civilians.

The ICRC said it has been allowed access to US-held detainees in Iraq, as it has at Guantanamo. It also checks in on Noriega.

''We visited him twice in 2006 in Miami, according to our traditional methods of visits. This year we visited him once,'' Schorno said.

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