BAGHDAD, Iraq – Joyful shouts and music rang out as Iraqi convicts poured from prisons, released in what their government portrayed as a gesture of gratitude.
U.S. officials dismissed Sunday's amnesty as a ploy by a desperate President Saddam Hussein to rally domestic and international support. The scenes played out all day and into the night were as spontaneous a public display backing Saddam as Iraq has ever seen.
Freed prisoners carrying their belongings in plastic shopping bag chanted: "We sacrifice our blood and souls for Saddam!"
"We are ready to defend our leader and country with our blood," said Ali Karim Hassan, who walked out of Abu Ghareb prison, about 10 miles south of Baghdad, after serving seven years of a 10-year sentence for stealing a welding machine.
"Today, we are given a great chance to start a new life and I will try my best to avoid jail," he added.
The government called the amnesty a way of thanking the nation for supporting Saddam, who claimed 100 percent of Iraqis voted for him in a presidential referendum last week. His decree, read repeatedly on national television Sunday, said the "full and complete and final amnesty" applied to "anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason."
Iraqi officials did not say how many prisoners were covered and it was not possible to confirm how many walked free.
In another broadcast Sunday, Justice Minister Munthir al-Shawi described the amnesty as "the leader's bounty bestowed on those who walked in the path of sin and wrongdoing in order to give them the chance to return to the nation's folds."
Al-Shawi said the amnesty will not cover those who spied "for the Zionist entity," referring to Israel, and the United States.
Saddam has made a number of attempts to rally public support recently. Under regulations announced several weeks ago, plots of land have been given to loyalists in the army, government and the ruling party. A mortgage bank, which closed down years ago, was reopened to provide interest-free loans to selected officials. Cars were sold at discount prices.
After hearing the amnesty news on state-run television, prisoners' families rushed to Abu Ghareb to find inmates pouring from their cells, chanting pro-Saddam and anti-U.S. slogans.
Ahmed Muhsen, a former civil servant who had served one out of three years for squandering public money described Saddam as "the best leader in the world."
"Now, I can breathe fresh oxygen again. It is like coming back from death," Amar al-Kurdi, who served one year out of 20 for breaking into houses, told The Associated Press at his home. After al-Kurdi arrived home late Sunday, his family distributed sweets to neighbors.
"I had not even dreamed of seeing my brother free so soon," said his sister, Amina al-Kurdi.
Iraq's Babil newspaper, owned by Saddam's son Odai, described the amnesty "as a lesson to Bush in true democracy."
President Bush has called for Saddam to be toppled, accusing him of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists, and has expressed concerns about Iraq's human rights record."
In Washington on Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Iraqi amnesty was "typical" of Saddam's "use of human beings for these political purposes of his."
The newly freed prisoners "better watch out where the next door is that puts them right back in jail," Powell said on ABC's "This Week."
Also Sunday, after a meeting headed by Saddam, the Cabinet said U.N. weapons inspectors had failed to arrive last week as Iraq had hoped. The Cabinet blamed their absence on the United States.
Iraq had been pushing for an advance party to come to Baghdad, but chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said last week he would await a new U.N. Security Council resolution addressing charges Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Blix had said that since the council was still debating a resolution, the U.N. team wouldn't be able to deploy by Oct. 19.
The United States would like a tough resolution to strengthen the inspectors' mandate. France, though, opposes threatening language in any initial resolution, and negotiations at the United Nations have dragged on.
"The Security Council is discussing the (Iraq) issue and I hope that sometime this week or soon there will be a resolution of the Security Council," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday after arriving in Dushanbe, Tajikistan as part of his first tour of Central Asia.
U.N. sanctions against Iraq, imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, cannot be lifted until inspectors verify Iraq is free of chemical and biological weapons and missiles to deliver them.