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Iraq Government Begins Prisoner-Release Program

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

In Iraq today, nearly 600 prisoners are being released as part of a national reconciliation program. They were brought, on buses, from prison to meet their families. The release was announced yesterday, by Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki. He said some 2,500 prisoners are to be freed over the coming days. That's the largest group since the U.S. led invasion three year ago.

The release is seen as Maliki's pledge to heal sectarian divisions in Iraq. He's also vowed to crush the insurgency.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay is covering the story in Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the prisoners being released.

TARABAY: Well, Prime Minister Maliki has insisted that the men being released are not Saddam loyalists or belong to the insurgency, which is largely made up of Iraqi Sunnis who dominated the former regime. But this morning, we saw about 110 prisoners being delivered to a bus station in central Baghdad. And as they got out of the bus, they were met by a representative from the Iraqi Islamic party, which is the biggest Sunni faction in Parliament. And as they got out, each of them was being given 300,000 Iraqi dinars, which is about $150. Altogether today, about 560 - some 600 prisoners will be released, and Iraqi officials say that another five 500 will freed in four day's time.

There is significant numbers, but not really anything that's out to the ordinary. But having said that, there are still about 30,000 prisoners held in Iraqi and American prisons in the country.

MONTAGNE: Well still, given the numbers, is Maliki using this as a political opportunity to bolster support for his government?

Ms. TARABAY: Well, there's very little else that's good news, out there, for him to be focusing on at the moment. You know he's dealing with an increasingly deteriorating security situation, which he blames on insurgents who are trying to undermine his very, very new government.

You know, he's made security the focus of his platform. He said that he wants to tackle the militias. And we've just heard now, that the Mahdi Army, which is a Shiite militia, together with some Iraqi security forces have surrounded a town which is known to be an insurgent stronghold. So, you know, he's got situations that he doesn't seem to be in control of. He's got a very critical situation in Basra, the security there is really just coming apart.

And he's still dealing with the fallout of the investigations into the Haditha killing. You know, he said he wants these prisoner releases to motivate people to move towards national reconciliation, rather than more violence and attempts to destabilize the country.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Prime Minister still hasn't filled two of the most important cabinet positions, that would maybe help stabilize the country. He promised to name interior and defense ministers this past weekend. What's going on?

TARABAY: Right. He gave a press conference yesterday when he announced these prisoner releases. And in the same press conference, he said that the same names for the interior and defense ministers were still on the table - that they just didn't have the quorum to push the votes through when Parliament met the last time.

So, he says that when they do meet the next time, they have the numbers and hey will go a head. It's critical for the security situation here, that these positions be filled. Iraqis, right now, don't trust the interior ministry at all. A perfect example: two days ago in broad daylight, about 50 people, who it turns out were working for the transport companies, were abducted by men wearing police uniforms; and we're discovering now, that it was an interior ministry operation.

It's things like this that Maliki is very aware of, that he needs to resolve very soon.

MONTANGE: And just very briefly, there's been more violence today?

Ms. TARABAY: Yes. Four Iraqi policemen were shot dead in Baghdad, and another incident, two more policemen were killed in a roadside bomb. And a U.S. solder was killed in roadside bomb attack on his convoy.

MONTANGE: Jamie, thanks very much. NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad, where the first of some 2,500 prisoners were released today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.
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