Iraq Frees Hundreds of Sunni Prisoners to Ease Tensions

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Iraq's Shiite-led government releases nearly 600 mostly Sunni Arab prisoners in a good-will gesture aimed at easing sectarian tensions.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Iraq today the government set nearly 600 prisoners free, people who had been suspected of supporting the insurgency. This is the first release in an attempt to foster reconciliation between the country's Shiites and Sunnis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to release some 2,500 detainees in all. Maliki says none of those freed today belonged to the ousted Baath Party or terrorist organizations.

More now from NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

One after another, looking happy but tired, the skinny men descended from the bus at a central bus station in Baghdad. They'd spent 16 hours shackled to their seats as they traveled from Camp Bucca, a U.S. military detention facility in the south of the country. One man ran to hug his brother, while another looked upset there was no one to meet him. A woman who'd waited for the bus to arrive went from one freed man to the next, asking about her son.

(Soundbite of crowd)

TARABAY: Most of the men were in good spirits, especially Awad al-Jassan(ph), a Sunni sheik arrested nearly seven months ago after U.S. forces raided his home in Haldea, near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi. He says the prisoners were treated well by their American guards, but he complained about the thin blankets, the lack of visitors and having to eat beans.

Mr. AWAD AL-JASSAN (Sunni Prisoner, Camp Bucca): (Through translator) The beans destroyed us. I'm not going to eat any more beans for the next two years.

TARABAY: Many of these men were deemed security threats when they were detained and most were held for at least six months. Their cases were reviewed by U.S. and Iraqi officials before they were released. Since the joint review board was established in August 2004, nearly 20,000 prisoners have been freed.

Mr. AL-JASSAN: (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: Awad al-Jassan recites a poem to celebrate his release. Other freed prisoners lined up to collect money from Omar al-Jubouri, an official of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni faction in Parliament. Al-Jubouri gave each of the men the equivalent of $150. Most will use part of the money to pay for bus rides back to their hometowns.

As a condition for their release, each had to agree not to join the insurgency and, as the U.S. military put it, become good citizens of Iraq. Al-Jubouri says Prime Minister Maliki should follow the U.S. military's example and release Iraqi prisoners from government detention centers.

Mr. OMAR AL-JUBOURI (Iraqi Islamic Party): (Through translator) I think releasing the detainees will solve 50 percent of the security problem. It will give Iraqi citizens back their confidence and will also help the Iraq government.

TARABAY: Maliki's announcement of the prisoner release is seen as an attempt to reach out to the minority Sunnis who accused the Shiite-dominated government of illegally arresting and detaining thousands of Sunnis, whether they have ties to the insurgency or not. Maliki told a news conference yesterday he hopes the decision will go some way toward quelling sectarian tensions.

Mr. AL-JUBOURI: (Through translator) I think that such a step will encourage others to stand by the political process and those who are released from prison can follow this plan to reintegrate with society.

TARABAY: Today more than 20 people were killed in separate attacks across Iraq. Officials at Baghdad's morgue reported receiving 43 bodies. The Health Ministry says more than 6,000 bodies have passed through the capital's morgue in the first six months of this year.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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