Two Americans imprisoned by Iraq since they strayed across the Kuwaiti border in March were freed Sunday, the White House announced.
William Barloon and David Daliberti, both smiling broadly, were released to the custody of Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) in Baghdad after being pardoned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The two men celebrated their release with pizza and champagne at the Polish Embassy in Baghdad, which handles U.S. interests in Iraq, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said.
“I am happy to be reunited with my family,” Barloon said later in anticipation of his return home, the Associated Press reported. Daliberti said only that it was a “great day.”
The release followed weeks of behind-the-scenes efforts by Richardson, who has become something of a global trouble-shooter and who arrived in Baghdad on Saturday. The two Americans, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally entering Iraq, are expected to leave Iraq with Richardson today, the congressman said from Baghdad.
The men were expected to head for the Jordanian capital of Amman, a 10-hour trip by desert road. Air links to and from Iraq have been restricted by U.N. sanctions.
White House sources said they believe Hussein decided to release the Americans as part of a broad effort to win international support for the easing of those sanctions--imposed after Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Barloon, 39, of New Hampton, Iowa, and Daliberti, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., drove into Iraq by mistake and were arrested March 13 after guards at a U.N. checkpoint mistakenly passed them through. Both work for American defense contractors in Kuwait.
Richardson met with Hussein on Sunday after talks a day earlier with Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz. The negotiations and trip were made on Richardson’s initiative, but he received backing from the White House for his humanitarian mission.
“Richardson conveyed . . . a humanitarian appeal from President Clinton, the U.S. Congress and the American people to President Saddam Hussein to use his constitutional authority, and for humanitarian reasons, to pardon the two American prisoners,” the official Iraqi News Agency reported Sunday.
The Iraqi leader told Richardson that he had ordered a presidential decree pardoning the two Americans, effective immediately.
In a statement released by his office in Washington, Richardson said no deals were made in the meeting.
“There was no quid pro quo and no concessions. . . . I commend the Iraqi government for taking this positive humanitarian action,” he said.
Richardson also credited White House policy. “President Clinton’s quiet but firm diplomacy on the prisoners’ behalf was effective,” his statement added.
On their release, the men looked healthy. Earlier, they had been reported in ill health. The wives of the two were thrilled.
“I never lost hope. I never got discouraged,” Kathy Daliberti told the Associated Press in Jacksonville.
Barloon’s wife, Linda, told Cable News Network, “Obviously, I am absolutely elated, and I can’t believe this ordeal is coming to an end.” Clinton spoke to both women after their husbands’ release from the top-security Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Daliberti’s father, Raymond, jokingly told the Associated Press after hearing of the release, “When I see him, I’ll be hitting him over the head with a two-by-four to get his attention and make sure he knows the difference between east and west.”
The release followed a U.N. Security Council decision last week to extend trade sanctions against Iraq for an additional 60 days. But the sanctions come up for renewal again in September.
France, Russia and China, three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have been pushing to lift part or all of the economic sanctions when Iraq complies with U.N. resolutions on disclosure and dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction--as Baghdad claims it is now doing.
French and Russian companies have already initialed deals to take effect as soon as sanctions are lifted.
The release is effectively a public relations gambit to show that Iraq is willing to negotiate. And resolving a crisis involving Americans is particularly pointed.
The United States has taken the hardest line against lifting sanctions, implying that it will continue unilateral sanctions as long as Hussein is in power even if the United Nations moves to ease the total economic embargo.
But Christopher said the release will not affect U.S. policy.
“Not at all. This is totally unconnected,” he said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”
Christopher speculated that Hussein “was trying to court some international favor.”