Iraq has begun setting free hundreds of inmates, officials said Monday, offering a concession to Sunni protesters demonstrating against the country's Shiite-led government.
Protesters from Iraq's Sunni minority have been rallying for more than three weeks against what they see as unfair treatment by the government against their sect.
The release of detainees has been one of their main demands, and some of those freed Monday came from areas where anti-government unrest has surfaced.
Sustained demonstrations against the government are rare in Iraq, and the size and staying power of the latest rallies are presenting a growing challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many demonstrators are tapping into Arab Spring sentiments by demanding the downfall of the regime.
The unrest is raising fears of a coming upsurge in sectarian bloodshed. Violence has dropped overall in Iraq since the nation neared a civil war several years ago, but attacks still happen frequently, usually in the form of Sunni militants targeting Shiites or security forces in an attempt to undermine the government's authority.
Iraqi authorities occasionally set free groups of inmates, but the latest move carried added significance because of the timing and high-profile nature of the release.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced the releases at a ceremony at a Baghdad prison attended by dozens of detainees, including some dressed in bright yellow prison jumpsuits. Those being freed were handed boxed Qurans and showered with candy as television cameras rolled.
"I hope that this will be an opportunity for you as Iraqis, who are keen to see the security and safety of the country and the stability of Iraq, to participate with us in spreading the spirit forgiveness and hope," al-Shahristani said at the ceremony.
Al-Shahristani, one of the prime minister's most trusted political allies, oversees a government committee, formed earlier this month, that is charged with looking into protesters' demands.
He said 335 detainees have gained their freedom in the past week, but he did not give details on their backgrounds or alleged crimes. More will be released in the coming days, he said, and he encouraged citizens to come forward with details of detainees they believe are being unfairly held.
While the vast western province of Anbar remains the focus of the demonstrations, rallies have erupted in several other predominantly Sunni areas as well.
"I cannot wait to see my elderly father after five years in detention. We hope that the government will do more to end the suffering of the people in this country," said Aziz Sami Awad as he awaited the release of his 77-year-old father, who was arrested during a raid in the northern suburbs of Baghdad in 2009.
Iraq's human rights minister, Mohammed Shiyaa al-Sudani, is a member of the committee headed by al-Shahristani. He said the panel is open to hearing all "legitimate demands of the protesters," and he vowed to streamline the process of releasing detainees.
Some of those who have recently been released had already finished their sentences but hadn't yet been set free because of bureaucratic snags, while others were being held in pre-trial detention, he said. Many of them were detained as part of terrorism-related investigations.
Those set free Monday included detainees from Mosul, Salaheddin and Anbar — all areas that have witnessed recent protests, he said.
Later Monday, gunmen killed a tribal leader, Mohammed Tahir, in a drive-by-shooting in Mosul, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.
Tahir played a role in supporting and leading protests in the northern Iraqi city.
The killing happened a day after a bomb struck a convoy carrying Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi elsewhere in Iraq. He was unharmed.
The arrest of the Sunni finance minister's bodyguards last month was the spark that set off the wave of protests.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting.
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