By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq has given the United States assurances it will not release a suspected Hezbollah operative accused of killing American troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Reuters, saying he expected Baghdad to honor its commitment.
The fate of Ali Mussa Daqduq has been vexing U.S. officials since last December, when the United States was forced to hand him over to Baghdad after failing to secure a custody deal before the U.S. military withdrawal from the country.
But an Iraqi court last month cleared him of the charges for allegedly orchestrating a 2007 kidnapping that resulted in the killing of five U.S. military personnel. That ruling raised concerns he might go free, even before any appeals process is completed.
"We've gotten a commitment from them that they would keep him incarcerated and that they would keep him in custody," Panetta said in an interview on Thursday.
"We expect them to stand by that commitment," he said.
Panetta did not explain under what legal mechanism Daqduq would remain incarcerated and did not elaborate. He also declined to comment on a U.S. extradition bid for Daqduq, referring the question to the Justice Department.
Daqduq was captured in March 2007 and initially said he was a deaf mute. U.S. forces accused him of being a surrogate for Iran's elite Quds force operatives and say he joined the Lebanese Hezbollah in 1983.
Republicans in Congress have criticized Obama's handling of the Daqduq case, but the White House has pointed out it was obligated under a security treaty with Iraq to hand over Daqduq before the U.S. military withdrawal last year.
Panetta said Daqduq had come up in his conversations with Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki, as well as conversations between Maliki and President Barack Obama.
"I have made very clear to my counterparts, to President Maliki, as has President Obama, that we expect them to keep Daqduq incarcerated and to not release him," Panetta said.
"This is somebody who's a terrorist and who we know is responsible for taking lives, the lives of our people. And we expect them to make sure that he's brought to justice."
(Editing By Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)