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Photographer freed by U.S.

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Pope Benedict XVI is displayed in a giant video screen behind the altar during an open-air Mass celebrated at Washington Nationals baseball today.

Pope Benedict XVI is displayed in a giant video screen behind the altar during an open-air Mass celebrated at Washington Nationals baseball today.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was reunited with family and colleagues Wednesday, ending more than two years in U.S. military custody after Iraqi judges dropped all legal proceedings against him.

Tearful relatives rushed to embrace Hussein, who had been given just a few hours' notice of his release. He thanked co-workers and supporters around the world who had worked on his behalf.

"I have spent two years in prison even though I was innocent. I thank everybody," said Hussein, 36, looking healthy and dressed in a brown traditional Iraqi robe.

American military police handed over Hussein to AP colleagues at a checkpoint near Baghdad International Airport two years and four days after he was detained by U.S. Marines in Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital.

Hussein, who is unmarried, was brought out of the detention facility at Camp Cropper to the checkpoint aboard a prison bus. There he was hugged by two colleagues before being driven to a Baghdad location for his reunion with more than a dozen family members.

He spoke to other well-wishers on a mobile phone as he was showered with flowers and sweets. Later, he was the center of attention at a traditional feast surrounded by colleagues and relatives.

"I thank God for Bilal's release and I hope that all Iraqi detainees will be released," said his 69-year-old mother, Taqiya Ahmed.

"Right from the beginning, I believed my son was innocent ... I didn't sleep a single minute last night thinking it would be the happiest day of my life to see Bilal again. I would like to thank the American army for his release, though it came late," she added.

His brother Yassir Hussein, a 35-year-old university professor in Baghdad, said he could not describe his happiness. "The family has been going through a hard time over the past two years, but now we thank God that we will have some rest," he said.

In the United States, AP President Tom Curley said Hussein "is safely back with AP and his family, and it is a great relief to us."

"Our heartfelt thanks to all of you who supported us during this difficult and challenging period," Curley said. "Bilal will now be spending some quiet time with his family and resting up."

Two judicial amnesty committees had ruled in recent days that there would be no trial on any of the accusations raised again Hussein. After confirming those decisions, the U.S. military's detention command said Monday it no longer deemed Hussein a security threat and he would be freed.

U.S. military investigators had asserted that Hussein had links to insurgents and was found in possession of bomb-making materials when he was detained April 12, 2006. In December, military authorities referred Hussein's case into the Iraqi court system for possible trial.

In February, the Iraqi parliament enacted a U.S.-backed amnesty law in a step toward national reconciliation. In separate rulings on Sunday and last week, the two Iraqi judicial panels granted Hussein amnesty, which drops the case and assumes no finding of guilt or innocence.

Throughout his detention, Hussein denied he maintained any improper contacts, saying he was doing the normal work of a photographer in a war zone.

Hussein was a member of the AP team that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005, and his detention drew protests from rights groups and press freedom advocates.

In New York, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, said the group was "thrilled" by Hussein's release.

"He now joins a growing list of journalists detained in conflict zones by the U.S. military for prolonged periods and eventually released without any charges or crimes ever substantiated against them," said Simon. "This deplorable practice should be of concern to all journalists. It basically allows the U.S. military to remove journalists from the field, lock them up and never be compelled to say why."

Hussein said he heard about the amnesty rulings while listening to Radio Sawa, an Arabic language station financed by the United States. But he received formal notice about the military's decision to free him just a few hours in advance.

On the Net: The AP's site on Bilal Hussein: www.ap.org/bilalhussein