BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of newly freed Iraqi prisoners kissed the ground after being dropped off Wednesday at bus stations as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the largest such release since the U.S.-led invasion in a bid to appease Sunni Arabs and promote reconciliation in his fractured nation.
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 Iraq, including Abu Ghraib.
Sunni political leaders welcomed the initiative, although some expressed fear the releases would be offset by more arrests amid accusations that the formerly dominant minority has suffered from arbitrary detentions and even torture at the hands of the Shiite-led government.
"We want a real solution to our situation," 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."
Al-Maliki has made security and reconciliation among Sunnis and Shiites a priority of his new administration government. But he also has vowed to crack down on violence often blamed on the Sunni-led insurgency and said the detainee release plan excludes loyalists of ousted leader Saddam Hussein, as well as "terrorists whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people."
Sectarian tensions surged with Monday's abductions of 50 people in downtown Baghdad by gunmen wearing police uniforms and Sunday's shooting deaths of 21 Shiites north of the capital, including students pulled from their minivans.
Police said Wednesday that 15 of the kidnapped people had been released, some with signs of torture, but provided no details on their identities.
A parked car bomb struck a popular 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.
Mohammed Jassim Hameed, a man in his 50s, said he was arrested on Dec. 19, 2004, and accused of kidnapping cell phone employees. He said he had spent time in several U.S. detention centers, including Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.
"They used to give us the same food every day. We were fed up with it," he said.
A woman who identified herself as Um Ahmed said she was told by the Sunni Islamic Party that her husband Salih Khalid Salih would be among those released.
"They detained him at home and I've been waiting for him for three months," she said, crying because she could not find him among the detainees who filed out of buses, many dropping to their knees and kissing the ground in thanks.
AP Television News footage showed a U.S. soldier giving a hand to one man who was using crutches as he climbed off a bus.
Representatives of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab group in the governing coalition, hugged the detainees.
Party member Omar al-Jubori said the agreement came after negotiations with U.S. Embassy and military officials, as well as street protests. The releases will "give happiness and hope to every detainee and every oppressed person in this country," al-Jubori said.
The prime minister said Tuesday that 2,500 prisoners would be released, but his office changed that number to 2,000 on Wednesday. Iraqi officials have said there is an agreement to release up to 14,000 detainees once their cases have been reviewed. A U.N. report last month said there were 28,700 detainees in Iraq. Most are believed to be Sunni Arabs.
U.S. Lt. Col. Kier-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for U.S. military detainee operations, said it was a joint decision and would be the largest release over a 30-day period since the war began in March 2003. He said those being freed were not guilty of serious crimes and had agreed to renounce violence.
"It's in support of the new Iraqi government and their spirit of unity and national reconciliation," he said. "We view these individuals as providing a relatively low security threat because the Iraqi government has approved the release of those not guilty of serious crimes, such as bombing and torture, kidnapping and murder."
The U.S. military also freed nearly 1,000 security detainees in August in a similar bid to placate Sunnis during negotiations over a new constitution.
Al-Maliki announced the releases on Tuesday as he seeks to shore up support for his nearly three-week-old government of national unity amid rampant sectarian and militia violence and his failure to name new interior and defense ministers — key security posts considered vital to his plans to take over security from U.S.-led forces within 18 months.
The plan would put American and international forces in a supervisory role, part of an exit strategy that will eventually allow the troops to go home.
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 the end of the year, sticking to a timeline set by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi even after the election of a new center-left government.
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.
The announcement came two days after an attack on an Italian military convoy in southern Iraq killed a soldier and wounded four others. Premier Romano Prodi said Tuesday that the attack would not hasten Italy's withdrawal from the country.
D'Alema's announcement was the first indication by the new government of the timing of the complete pullout of Italy's 2,700 troops from Iraq — the fourth-largest foreign contingent after the United States, Britain and South Korea.
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.