The confusion Wednesday over whether two "high-value" women prisoners being held in Iraq would be released has underlined the limits of the interim government's authority. The apparent differences between the statements of Iraqi ministers and U.S. officials will raise questions yet again over both the coherence of the new Iraqi administration and the degree of independence it actually enjoys. By the end of the day, U.S. and Iraqi officials appeared to have agreed that neither Rihab Rashid Taha, a biological weapons scientist held in custody in Baghdad, nor Huda Salih Amash, a microbiologist, would be released imminently.
But this followed a series of conflicting statements, which were provoked by Iraq's justice minister's insisting on Tuesday that Taha was expected to be freed on bail Wednesday -- a move that offered a glimmer of hope to the family of the last remaining hostage, Kenneth Bigley.
The announcement took the British and the Americans by surprise at a time when both governments were saying they were determined not to give any concessions to terrorists. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that the release of either woman was not within the gift of the Iraqi government.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad appeared to have finally ruled out the possibility of an immediate release when a spokesman insisted that "the two women are in legal and physical custody of the multinational forces in Iraq and neither will be released imminently."
Though the U.S. occupation authorities formally handed over "sovereignty" to the Iraqi government in late June, key decisions, including those involving big combat operations and the detention of high-security suspects from the former regime, are still made by the U.S. There is supposed to be dialogue between the Iraqi government and the U.S. forces concerning military operations, but the Iraqi government has no power of veto.
In the case of the two scientists -- regarded as "high-value" detainees when they were arrested -- the buck still stops with the Americans. They are being held by U.S. troops in a prison thought to be at the base around Baghdad airport.
There is little doubt that the final say in such high-security cases rests with the American commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman on detention operations, said responsibility for approving each release lay "primarily with the multinational forces," although he said there was "consultation" with the Iraqi government. "There has been an ongoing process of reviewing specifically the cases of high-value detainees that has proceeded over the last couple of months," he said. "That process continues, and we are not prepared to indicate when a final decision may be made on any high-value detainees. I am not prepared to comment on the timing of what might happen."
Taha, known as "Dr. Germ," is the wife of Iraq's former oil minister and has a Ph.D. from the University of East Anglia. Amash, dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax," received a master's from Texas Women's University and studied microbiology at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
The Iraqi government clearly believes that the inmates do not pose an imminent threat to security in Iraq. Iraq's Justice Ministry insisted yesterday it still wanted to release the women, although it said this had nothing to do with the kidnapping of Bigley and the two executed Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.
"We have discussed this issue and I do think they should be released. We started this process two months ago," said Noori Abdul-Rahim, a spokesman for the ministry. He said the final legal procedures were being completed for the release on bail of Taha, including finding an Iraqi community leader to act as a guarantor for her future behavior. He said the ministry wanted her to be released immediately or in the coming days.
Iraq's new national security advisor, Qasim Daoud, took a slightly different tack. He said the investigation into whether the two women could be released was over but that "security measures" were still underway before the scientists could be allowed to go home. "Until now the security measures are still going on," he said at a news conference in Baghdad. "I say they will not be released today, tomorrow or after tomorrow -- but after they undergo a medical checkup and security measures. The investigation is over, but we are still going on with the security measures."
Amid the confused promises of release Wednesday, it remained unclear whether the kidnappers knew that only two women were still in prison or even hoped for their release. Tawhid and Jihad, the militant group behind the kidnappings, is the most violent in Iraq and has been responsible for a series of videotaped killings in recent weeks.
Far from making specific demands over prisoners, their messages usually talk of leading an epic battle against the US and its allies and destroying the current Iraqi government.