BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of newly freed Iraqi prisoners kissed the ground after being dropped at bus stations Wednesday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the largest such release since the U.S.-led invasion.
Sunni Arab political leaders welcomed the initiative, which was intended to promote reconciliation in this fractured nation. But some expressed fear the releases would be offset by more arrests. There have been accusations that Sunnis have suffered arbitrary detentions and even torture at the hands of the Shiite-led government.
“We want a real solution,” said Sunni legislator Mohammed al-Dayeni, calling for all detainees to be released. “We demand that random raids and arrests be stopped in all Iraqi provinces, and only in that way can we ensure a safe environment.”
The government has promised to release a total of 2,000 detainees whose cases have been reviewed, in batches of about 500. The first 594 were freed Wednesday from U.S.- and Iraqi-run prisons around the country, including Abu Ghraib.
Al-Maliki has made security and reconciliation a priority of his new government. But he also has vowed to crack down on violence often blamed on the Sunni-led insurgency, and said the release plan excludes loyalists of ousted leader Saddam Hussein, as well as “terrorists whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people.”
A parked car bomb struck an outdoor market in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least two people and wounding 12, police said – one of several attacks that killed 21 people nationwide.
In a new setback to the U.S.-led coalition, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said Wednesday that Italy will withdraw all its troops from Iraq by this fall, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government had promised to withdraw forces by the end of the year.
D’Alema, who was in Baghdad to discuss the plans with Iraqi leaders, said Italy would begin reducing the number of Italian troops in Iraq this month.
Italy follows Spain, Bulgaria and other U.S. allies that have either withdrawn or reduced their troops in Iraq. Of the 150,000 foreign troops in Iraq, 130,000 are U.S. soldiers.