The U.S. military and the Iraqi government are talking about releasing as many as 20 members of Saddam Hussein's former regime, including...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The U.S. military and the Iraqi government are talking about releasing as many as 20 members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime, including at least three from the list of the 55 most wanted, Iraqi lawyers and Justice Ministry officials said this week.

Even the hint of a release sparked fierce debate among ordinary Iraqis, whose views are colored by how much their families suffered — or benefited — during Saddam’s nearly three decades in power. Some Iraqis say the former Baath party luminaries should be kept behind bars not just because of their complicity with Saddam’s brutalities, but also because assassination squads would target them the second they were freed.

Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq, acknowledged that the talks are under way, but refused to offer any details.

“The Iraqi government has not yet decided regarding the issue of the 20 detainees,” said Falah Moussa, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

But Bisho Ibrahim, the deputy justice minister, said in an interview at his office in Baghdad that the Justice Ministry already was planning for the release. “Two days ago, we had a meeting with the Americans at the Justice Ministry, and the Americans said they’re just waiting for the final approval from the Iraqi government to release these 20,” Ibrahim said.

Emotions run high

Ibrahim said he didn’t think the approval would come soon, given the political implications of a Shiite Muslim-dominated government releasing members of Saddam’s former regime.

Emotions on the issue run especially high among Shiites and Kurds, the groups most brutally targeted under the former Sunni-dominated government. The once-oppressed groups are the new power brokers in Iraq, and they’re hardly unhappy about Saddam’s cronies’ reversal of fortune.

“Even if they release them, they’ll find a new situation in Iraq,” said Rasha Mohsin, a 22-year-old Shiite woman who works at a hotel. They may find that situation unfriendly, and they’ll have no chance to regain their influence.

“Nothing is like before”

“Nothing is like before,” Mohsin said. “Their families’ lives are different. The government is different.”

Saddam and his top deputies aren’t included in the proposed release, though several other prominent Baath party members could be released because they didn’t play a major role in atrocities, said Badee Aziz, the attorney for three of the 55 most wanted, including former Vice President Tariq Aziz.

Aziz, No. 33 and the eight of spades on the U.S. military’s infamous deck of cards, isn’t being considered for release.

The most prominent people who might go free are former Oil Minister Amer Rasheed and his wife, Rehab Taha, the notorious scientist dubbed “Dr. Germ” for her experiments with bacterial-biological programs. Other figures include the former director of the Iraqi Central Bank, the former minister of culture and a man who was a top aide to Saddam’s son Odai and a member of the much-feared Iraqi Olympic Committee, according to their attorneys and relatives.

“But even if they’re released, it’s possible that the Iraqi government will arrest them again on civil charges for their actions against Iraqis,” Deputy Justice Minister Ibrahim said.

Arrested after release

That’s already happened with one of the 55 most wanted, Ghazi al-Obeidi, a former Baath party regional director who was released from U.S. custody April 28 because he is ill with cancer, according to Iraqi officials.

Al-Obeidi was released under the former caretaker government, and the newly elected officials consider that a mistake, said Laith Kubba, spokesman and adviser to al-Jaafari. The government promptly issued a new arrest warrant, but al-Obeidi’s attorney said he had fled to Syria.

Hussam Mullah Huweish, the brother of the former Central Bank director, said the release was long overdue for people who had yet to be charged with crimes. Huweish’s brother, Issam Mullah Huweish, wasn’t among the 55 most wanted.

“He was one of the first people to meet with the Americans when they came. He gave them all the information he had,” Hussam Mullah Huweish said of his brother. “He is not accused of anything.”

Some ordinary Iraqis said all the fuss about the former regime detracted from the country’s real problems: the foreign terrorists who flood the streets with car bombs, attack security forces and create havoc for the fledgling government.

“It’s not a problem to release these people. We know what they’ve done,” said Alaa, a 29-year-old Shiite who works at a gas station and was too afraid to give his last name. “It’s more important to capture the terrorists. What happened in the past has happened. We have to deal with what’s happening now.”