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Former Electricity Minister of Iraq Flees Country

January 18, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the story of an escape from an Iraqi prison. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Aiham Alsammarae walked through the crowds at O’Hare Airport’s international terminal this week, tired after a 13-hour flight from Amman, Jordan.

Last month, Alsammarae, the former minister of electricity in Iraq, escaped from an Iraqi police station in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where he had been held for nearly six months after being convicted of corruption, a charge he says was politically motivated.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE, Former Minister of Electricity, Iraq: When I came back to see my home and see my family and realize that I am coming back to life again, really, this is like when they say this is my sweet home.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Iraqi-born, Alsammarae came to Chicago in 1976 to get his PhD in engineering. In 1979, he learned Saddam Hussein had executed three members of his family. So he stayed in the U.S., became a citizen, and built a successful electrical engineering company.

But he remained committed to overthrowing Hussein, as he told me in this prewar 2002 interview.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: If it doesn’t have a regime change, we will never have a democracy in Iraq. Saddam Hussein believe in one thing, is control everything in his hands.

Charges and conviction

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After Hussein's fall, the Americans asked Alsammarae to become the minister of electricity in the new interim government. He says he brought Iraq's electricity back to prewar levels.

In 2005, he helped form a secular party to win seats in the new parliament, but was soundly trounced.

Last August, the current Iraqi government charged Alsammarae with misappropriating millions of Iraqi dollars when he was minister of electricity. Alsammarae, a secular Sunni, says the charges by the Shia-dominated government against himself and other former secular ministers are political.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Because we are seculars, they want to clean us out. They want to kick us out from the country. Everybody like me, when they indict him, he will never go back.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae, who was back in Chicago when he learned of the charges, was the only minister to return to Iraq to defend himself. But in October, he was convicted on one count of misspending $200,000 to purchase an emergency generator without the proper authorization.

On December 11th, his conviction was overturned by the Iraqi Supreme Court, which ordered his release. But instead of releasing him, his Iraqi guards threatened to take him outside of the Green Zone for processing.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: The guy in charge of the police station, he said he has to take me outside the Green Zone for fingerprints. I said, "This is impossible. I cannot go outside the Green Zone, because easy I will get killed. Somebody will kidnap me." The situation is controlled by militias, OK? So they will kidnap me and in no time, and I will be killed.

Escaping Baghdad

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Fearing for his life, Alsammarae acted on a well-planned-out escape route.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I called my friends, and the friends, they come. They brought the car close to the police station, and I walk out to the car, and I move out from the Green Zone. From the Green Zone, we change cars many times. And after that, we reached the airport, Iraqi international airport, and I just flew over the private jet to Amman. Simple. Two-hours-and-a-half, I'd be in Amman.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Although his Iraqi passport was confiscated in jail, he managed to hide a second one and then renew his American passport in Jordan.

Though Alsammarae is a U.S. citizen, he says the American embassy in Baghdad was not involved in any way in his escape. Those who helped him, he says, were mostly Iraqi friends and supporters, including the owner of the private jet.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I was nervous all the way until I reach Amman, because you never know what's going to happen. Something is wrong can be done in any second.

A fugitive in Chicago

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Iraqi officials were stunned at how easily Alsammarae was able to escape from the heavily fortified Green Zone. A spokesman for the al-Maliki government said five additional corruption charges remain against Alsammarae and "the government will do whatever it can to bring him back."

Alsammarae calls the charges false and says he made the right decision to escape and return home to his family and his electrical engineering consulting business in suburban Chicago.

Even as he began to settle in at home, he continued to worry about the escalating violence in Iraq. He sees the solution as more political than military.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: We have to make some arrangements inside the congress of Iraq right now to bring the seculars back around the country. Religious people, they cannot run the country. If they are Shia or Sunni, they cannot run it. We need a people of both religions to run the country.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He is considered a fugitive by the current Iraq government, but Alsammarae says at some point he will return to Iraq. Why?

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Well, we work very hard to see Saddam Hussein leaving. And I worked since 1980. I have to do it. This is in my blood. I don't think I can give up and give all that we worked for to those guys.

If you are a politician, you will take a risk certain times, and you have to take it. And if I got killed, probably you will say, "He lost it," but looks like I succeeded, and I'm still alive and I got my papers with me. So...

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For now, Alsammarae will spend his time trying to pull his business and his life back together.