Prisoners Released Amid Surge of Violence

Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, still struggling to form a government months after national elections, has released 2,500 prisoners in what observers say is an effort to create good will and hopefully quell sectarian violence. The Baghdad morgue received a record number of bodies in May, and the Iraqi government said it was the deadliest month since U.S.-led forces invaded the country in 2003.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, we go to the Marine base Camp Pendleton to find out what people there think about the alleged killings of Iraqi civilians by Marines.

First, though, in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today ordered the release of 2,500 prisoners - mostly Sunnis.

Prime Minister NOURI al-MALIKI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

BRAND: He called the move a gesture of national reconciliation. He said none of the prisoners to be released has any connection to Saddam Hussein's regime, and that all of them are innocents. Al-Maliki hopes their release will appease the insurgents.

CHADWICK: Meanwhile, Sectarian violence is getting worse. According to the Iraqi government, May was the deadliest month since the US invasion three years ago. There were more stabbings and other violent killings than any other month in the last three years. And the Baghdad morgue got almost 1,400 bodies last month - double the number in May a year ago. So far, June is not good, either. This week, 50 people were brazenly kidnapped from a bus stop in broad daylight, and police found nine severed heads in fruit boxes in an area north of Baghdad.

BRAND: Al-Maliki's government has yet to name new interior or defense ministers, key positions that would bring order to Iraq. One bright spot, there are now fewer civilians deaths at U.S.-run military checkpoints. There is only one a week now, down from seven a week a year ago. Sarah Sewall is with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard.

Ms. SARAH SEWALL (Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It's really important to recognize that reduction from seven to one per week is significant. And I think the more powerful question, perhaps, is why we didn't figure out a response to this sooner and what we could be learning from this apparent success.

BRAND: In fact, the US military has only been keeping a record of civilian deaths in Iraq for about a year. The Bush administration says about 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion.

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