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Released American was working alone in Iraq

Posted: March 19, 2012 - 12:02am

BAGHDAD — The American who was released this week after being held captive nine months by an anti-U.S. militia was working alone in Iraq and was not on a government contract, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said Sunday.

The man identified as Randy Michael Hultz had been described as both a U.S. soldier and a contractor by Shiite lawmakers who turned him over to United Nations diplomats. His sudden appearance stunned U.S. Embassy officials who did not even know he was in Iraq, much less gone missing.

Hultz was not available for comment Sunday as embassy officials interviewed him about details of the June 2011 kidnapping, at the hands of a Shiite militia controlled by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“Mr. Hultz, a private citizen, is not an employee or contractor of the U.S. government and was in Iraq on private business,” Embassy spokesman Michael McClellan said in a statement. The embassy “continues to assist Mr. Hultz as he considers his plans.”

While security across Iraq has greatly improved over the last few years, it is still unusual to see Westerners on Baghdad’s streets. Most Westerners still travel with security guards in armored cars around the capital, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad routinely issues warnings about kidnapping threats against American citizens.

At a press conference before he was released Saturday by the two lawmakers, both of whom represent al-Sadr’s political party, Hultz wore a U.S. Army uniform. He said he initially came to Iraq as a U.S. soldier and later moved into a job in what he described as a “civilian capacity.”

By the time the Sadrist lawmakers turned over Hultz to the United Nations mission in Baghdad, he was wearing a suit. One of the lawmakers, Maha al-Douri, said in an interview Sunday that the wardrobe change was Hultz’s choice.

The U.S. and the Sadrists have been, at best, highly suspicious of each other since the cleric’s followers won political clout in Iraq by capturing 40 seats in parliament in national elections two years ago. At worst, they have been unapologetic enemies, with al-Sadr accusing Americans of illegally occupying Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and U.S. officials blaming the Sadrist militias for some of the bloodiest attacks against American troops at the height of the war.

Al-Douri maintained Sunday that Hultz was released as a show of Sadrist goodwill to Americans for withdrawing from Iraq at the end of last year as promised. She said he was not collaborating with the Sadrists.

“The decision to release the soldier was purely humanitarian because there is no reason to keep him any more after the end of the U.S. withdrawal,” al-Douri said.

At the bizarre press conference the day before, Hultz gave few details about his capture, which he described as a kidnapping. He said he was moved to different places around Baghdad by the Promised Day Brigade, the most violent wing of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

Al-Douri said Hultz was abducted during an attack by the group that she said was based on “militia intelligence.”

Another senior Sadrist politician, Abdul-Hadi al-Matiri, said the kidnappers gave Hultz about $1,000 to buy an airplane ticket, his personal belongings and a Quran before he was released.

He said Hultz was the sole survivor of an attack on a security patrol. His account could not be immediately verified.

McClellan reminded U.S. citizens to register with the diplomatic mission when traveling to Iraq. He also urged Americans “to pay heed to the Iraq country specific information, including the current travel warning for Iraq.”

• Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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