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U.S.-led administration to release Iraqi prisoners

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's U.S.-led administration will release 506 prisoners from detention camps, while simultaneously offering bounties for 30 more Iraqis wanted in the anti-American insurgency, officials said Tuesday.

Coalition officials said the releases -- out of some 12,800 detainees -- are aimed at fostering more goodwill and intelligence tips, which they said have surged in the three weeks since the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Most to be released are suspected low-level "associates" of insurgents, and none has been directly involved in attacks, said three senior coalition officials -- two military and one civilian -- who gave reporters a briefing Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

"Let me reassure you that this is not a program for those with bloodstained hands," said a statement from U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

The officials said they would become "increasingly aggressive with the die-hards" but use "a carrot approach to those who are sitting on the fence."

One military official described the typical prisoner awaiting release as a person swept up in a raid that also captured "more dangerous persons" and perhaps weapons. Another official suggested the detainees may have acted out of fear of Saddam's possible return.

'A new chance'

Bremer's statement describes the release as a pardon for some Iraqis who worked against the U.S. occupation. "They made a mistake and they know it. We are prepared to offer some of them a new chance," the statement says.

Before they are freed, the prisoners must sign a statement renouncing violence and have a community or tribal leader accept responsibility for their conduct.

The release of Iraqis held indefinitely and without charge has been a top demand of the country's community and tribal leaders, as well as human rights advocates.

The coalition officials said they wanted to send a message to families and community leaders that "the reconciliation process is beginning."

The first release is to take place Thursday, when about 100 prisoners will be freed from the sprawling, Saddam-era Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. Further releases will take place in coming weeks from detention camps across Iraq, the officials said.

The 506 prisoners to be freed represent about 4 percent of the 12,800 prisoners in U.S. custody -- which includes almost 4,000 members of an anti-Iran rebel group.

Those to be freed were selected in 10 days of deliberations from an initial list of several thousand detainees. A three-member coalition board made up of one military intelligence official, one military judge advocate and one military police official narrowed the list to about 1,200 candidates, and then to 506.

At the same time, the officials said the U.S. military will intensify its hunt for hard-line guerrillas, offering bounties for information leading to the capture or killing of 30 Iraqis accused in the insurgency.

The reward announcement broadens the practice of offering bounties for wanted fugitives. Of the original 55 most wanted Iraqis whose pictures appeared on a deck of cards, 13 remain at large. Twelve of those command $1 million bounties.

The U.S. military has also put a $10 million bounty for Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam's revolutionary council and, since the ousted leader's capture Dec. 13, the most wanted man in the country.

The officials described the latest group of fugitives as second- and third-tier insurgent leaders, some of whom are on the original "black list." Others came to U.S. attention more recently. The pictures and names of all 30 will be made public when the list is released, the officials said.

Fifteen of the fugitives command bounties of $200,000 each; rewards for the remaining 15 are $50,000 apiece.

One of the military officials suggested the additional goodwill generated by the prisoner release would translate into intelligence tips that would make quicker work of disrupting guerrilla cells.

"Why sit around and wait for this to come to us? Why not accelerate the process?" he asked.


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