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updated 12/18/2006 4:55:42 PM ET 2006-12-18T21:55:42

The former electricity minister — a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen who was jailed for corruption — escaped police custody with the help of security agents he once hired to protect him, an anti-corruption official said Monday.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a car bomb killed five people and wounded at least 19 in the southern Sunni area of Sadiya, near a vegetable market. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility, sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites has fueled much of the recent violence in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two more American troops, raising to 59 the number of U.S. personnel killed in December. A Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 died Saturday, and a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died Friday, it said.

At least 2,947 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie broke out of a Baghdad detention facility Sunday with the help of a group of private security experts, said Faris Kareem, deputy head of Iraq’s Public Integrity Commission, an anti-corruption panel. It was al-Samaraie’s second escape since he was convicted in October.

Kareem said the security agents were “foreign,” but he had no further details.

Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said U.S. officials were aware of reports of al-Samaraie’s escape and had been in touch with him in prison to provide basic consular services.

A Sunni Arab political figure, al-Samaraie was a member of the transitional government set up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

He was convicted on one of 13 charges of corruption against him and still faces trial on the other 12 counts. The charges all concern an estimated $2 billion in funds for contracts on rebuilding the country’s electrical infrastructure that went missing.

May have contacts with insurgents
Al-Samaraie is also believed to have had contacts with Sunni Arab insurgents and has tried to persuade them to put down their weapons and join the political process.

After his first escape, a few days after his conviction, Iraqi officials caught him at the Baghdad airport with a Chinese passport, Kareem said.

On Dec. 9, a nephew of Saddam Hussein who was serving a life sentence for bomb-making escaped from prison in northern Iraq.

Ayman Sabawi, the son of Saddam’s half brother Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, fled the prison some 45 miles west of Mosul with the help of a police officer, according to local police Brig. Abdul Karim al-Jubouri.

Arrest warrants have been issued for about 90 former officials, including 15 ministers, on charges of corruption, according to the independent commission. Al-Samaraie is the only official to have been convicted and imprisoned on such charges.

Red Crescent shuts Baghdad operation
Also on Monday, the Iraqi Red Crescent shut its Baghdad operations, a day after gunmen staged a brazen mass kidnapping at the agency’s downtown office, seizing 30 of the aid group’s workers and volunteers.

Sixteen guards, drivers and other workers, along with two visitors and three guards from the neighboring Dutch Embassy, were released after several hours in captivity, a Red Crescent spokesman said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

“We gave orders to our Baghdad staff to stop working till further notice. We renew our calls for the release of the kidnapped persons,” said Mazin Abdellaha, the Iraqi Red Crescent’s secretary-general.

Peaceful protest
Red Crescent workers held a peaceful demonstration outside their Baghdad office to demand the release of the remaining captives.

The Defense Ministry said those responsible for the Red Crescent kidnappings were likely “the same groups” responsible for similar attacks in recent months.

“They aim at paralyzing life and stopping government and social life,” spokesman Mohammed al-Askari told reporters. “Targeting the Red Crescent is a horrible act.”

Many international aid organizations closed their operations in Iraq as the security situation deteriorated after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

At least half a dozen mass kidnappings have been carried out in the Iraqi capital this year, possibly by armed groups linked to the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.

U.K. inquest cites body armor
A British tank commander accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers as he struggled with an Iraqi attacker died because of an “unforgivable and inexcusable” delay in providing body armor to British troops, a coroner ruled Monday.

Sgt. Steve Roberts, a commander in the Royal Tank Regiment, died after he was attacked while manning a checkpoint outside the southern Iraqi city of Az Zubayr in the early hours of March 24, 2003.

An army inquiry found that when he tried to shoot the Iraqi, his Browning pistol failed and he was shot by a British soldier in a nearby tank who was trying to protect him but did not know his high-powered machine gun was inaccurate at short range.

The inquest heard Roberts was left exposed by “serious failings” in the army’s ability to supply its troops, noting that he gave up his body armor three days before his death.

Had he been wearing the armor he would have survived, the inquest heard.

In other incidents:

  • Four bodies were found blindfolded, handcuffed and shot execution-style off a highway in western Baghdad. Two roadside bombs killed one person and wounded seven others during the morning rush hour, and two mortar shells killed one person and wounded two others, police said. A sniper killed a guard at the gate of the University of Technology, they said.
  • In Mosul, police found two bodies, and gunmen shot and killed a civilian.
  • In Diyala province east of Baghdad, police said gunmen killed two civilians and wounded another. A roadside bomb killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded another, and a mortar round killed one villager and wounded 12 others.
  • In northern Iraq, a Sunni Arab member of the Nineveh provincial council, Khairi al-Dabagh, was shot and killed on his way to work in Mosul, police said.

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