BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Convicted thief Ali Karim Hassan walked away from prison a free man, and pledged to begin his life anew.
His shot at redemption was courtesy of Saddam Hussein who, on Sunday, announced the "full and complete and final amnesty" of Iraqi prisoners -- common and political.
The announcement prompted wild, emotional scenes at prison gates, but abroad, it was met with skepticism.
In neighboring Iran, a haven for Shiite Muslim opponents of Saddam, a top Iraqi Shiite religious leader said he had no confirmation of the release of any prominent Shiite political prisoners.
Country is a prison
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Modarresi said the amnesty had little impact. All of Iraq, he said, is a prison.
"Today, the Iraqi people, more than any other time, wish for freedom from the large prison the oppressive regime has created," Modarresi said in a statement sent to The Associated Press on Monday.
The government called the amnesty a way of thanking the nation for supporting Saddam after he received 100 percent backing in last week's presidential referendum.
Some weren't freed
A decree attributed to Saddam and read on national television on Sunday said the amnesty applied to "anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason."
In another broadcast Sunday, Justice Minister Munthir al-Shawi said the amnesty will not cover those who spied "for the Zionist entity," referring to Israel, and the United States.
State-run television said other Arabs imprisoned or detained in Iraq were included in the amnesty, but Iraqi officials did not say whether that included Kuwaiti prisoners of the 1991 Gulf War.
Kuwait has accused Iraq of failing to account for more than 600 Kuwaitis and nationals of other countries who disappeared during the Gulf crisis.
Baghdad has said it released all prisoners of war and has accused Kuwait of not cooperating to determine the fate of 1,150 Iraqis who disappeared during the crisis.
Sobhi Al Jumaily, the London-based representative of the Iraqi Communist Party, said in a telephone interview with AP in Cairo that there was no indication that hundreds of party members jailed by Saddam -- including leaders Safa Al Hafedh, Sabah Al Dorra and Aida Yassin -- were released.
Among Iraq's most prominent political prisoners is Aziz Seyed Jassim, a writer, journalist and former communist who was arrested in 1991 after the Gulf War for publishing calls for greater democracy in Iraq.