12/16/2005

Terror mastermind mistakenly released, official says

Iraqi official: Authorities didn't realize the prisoner was al-Zarqawi

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi security forces caught the most wanted man in the country last year, but released him because they didn't know who he was, the Iraqi deputy minister of interior said Thursday. Hussain Kamal confirmed that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- the al Qaeda in Iraq leader who has a $25 million bounty on his head -- was in custody at some point last year, but he wouldn't provide further details.

A U.S. official couldn't confirm the report, but said he wouldn't dismiss it. "It is plausible," he said. Thursday's news tops a list of reports of missed opportunities to capture the terrorist mastermind. An official said the military receives frequent reports of al-Zarqawi sightings, all of which are investigated. In April, U.S. troops stormed a hospital in Ramadi based on credible intelligence that terrorists were hiding there, but no suspects were found, military officials said in early May.

A high-ranking Iraqi Army officer said there were rumors that al-Zarqawi was at the Ramadi medical center, and several groups affiliated with the al Qaeda operative issued statements saying the same. Iraqi Lt. Gen. Nasser Abadi said Thursday that al-Zarqawi was taken to the hospital.

"When we got the news, we rushed there, but he was out of there," the general said.

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