By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday called on the Obama administration to send two Iraqis who are accused of trying to help al Qaeda to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. authorities arrested two Iraqi men in Kentucky last month and charged them in federal court with trying to help al Qaeda militants in their home country. One of the suspects was also charged in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Anyone who has taken up arms against U.S. forces in the field of battle is an enemy combatant pure and simple, and should be treated like one," McConnell, from Kentucky, said in remarks on the Senate floor.
"They should be hunted and captured, detained and interrogated, and tried away from civilian populations according to the laws of war," he said. McConnell has been one of the key lawmakers pushing to keep the Guantanamo prison open.
The chances the Obama administration would move the two suspects to Guantanamo to face trial are slim to none, but the call by McConnell once again forced the administration to defend its position on terrorism prosecutions.
"We are prosecuting these two alleged terrorists in federal court because it is the most proven method for keeping our country safe," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd, adding that hundreds of such suspects have been similarly prosecuted without a retaliatory strike.
President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo prison to be shuttered but has faced opposition from Republicans as well as some of his fellow Democrats who say terrorism suspects should not be prosecuted in traditional criminal courts.
Congress has blocked the Obama administration from moving any of the suspects still held there to American soil for prosecution, arguing that they should not be given full U.S. legal rights and could make cities targets for attack.
"These men don't belong in a courtroom in Kentucky. They belong at the secure detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, far away from U.S. civilians," McConnell said.
In Kentucky, Waad Ramadan Alwan was arrested on charges of taking part in roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops between 2003 and 2006, linked in one such instance by fingerprints obtained by U.S. forces from a device that did not detonate.
He and a second Iraqi, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, also were charged in a 23-count indictment with trying to provide support and weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, through a sting operation subsequently run by U.S. authorities.
The two men entered the United States in 2009 after receiving refugee status and have pleaded not guilty.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)