- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

BAGHDAD Hundreds of Iraqis from all over the country held a silent vigil outside the secret-police headquarters yesterday, seeking word of missing relatives who did not return when Saddam Hussein freed political prisoners earlier this week.
It was an extraordinary scene in a country where few are willing to risk any move that could be seen as challenging the regime.
Iraqis began camping outside the secret-police headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad following Sunday's announcement that Saddam had granted amnesty to political prisoners.
The amnesty is viewed as the latest effort by Saddam to build public support as he faces American threats of a war to topple him.
The crowds at the police headquarters and protests by other Iraqis seeking information about imprisoned relatives shows the gambit could backfire, raising expectations Saddam will have trouble fulfilling.
"They opened up the box of Pandora," Amnesty International's Kamal Samari said in London yesterday.
The White House, contemplating military action to force disarmament and possibly regime change in Iraq, said the prisoner release and subsequent protests only bolstered its case against Saddam.
"Brutal dictators who antagonize their own people stay in power only through fear," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday. "The people of Iraq deserve better than they've been given from the government they have. It's a sign that people everywhere yearn to be free and to have a future of life, liberty and happiness."
Hundreds of people were seen at the police building on Tuesday night. They came from Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces, and some said they had been sleeping there since the amnesty was announced Sunday. They said security officials told them they would see their relatives once release procedures are completed though government officials have insisted Iraq's prisons had already been emptied.
Exiled opposition figures had derided the announcement of amnesty for both criminal and political prisoners, saying they had no confirmation any important political prisoners had been freed.
The opposition Iraqi Communist Party, in a statement faxed to the Associated Press from London on Tuesday, said international monitors should inspect Iraqi prisons and detention centers to see whether the amnesty was genuine. Amnesty International, which has accused Saddam of torturing and executing his opponents, and Reporters Without Borders have asked the Iraqi regime to say which political prisoners and prisoners of conscience had been released.
"In a word, we don't know the numbers of people who have been released," Mr. Samari said. Amnesty has a list of 17,000 Iraqis who have "disappeared," he added.
The mood at the police headquarters was calm, with none of the slogan-shouting that marked a small and unusual protest in downtown Baghdad on Tuesday.
About 50 Iraqis came to the Information Ministry on Tuesday, some saying they were still awaiting their imprisoned relatives and urging authorities to give them information. The demonstrators shouted the pro-Saddam and anti-U.S. slogans common at any public gathering in Iraq, as if to ward off accusations they were challenging the government.
Guards dispersed the demonstrators after about 15 minutes. At least one warning shot fired into the air was heard. The demonstrators, though, returned later for another brief protest. Information Ministry officials tried to keep reporters away.
A few families returned to the Information Ministry yesterday Wednesday.
Iraq never said how many how Iraqis were imprisoned.
Labor and Social Affairs Minister Munthir al-Naqshabandi said in an interview published Tuesday in al-Thawra newspaper that "all Iraqi prisons are empty now and there is not any prisoner or detainee in Iraq."
He said even those convicted of murder had been set free and given a month to seek forgiveness from families of their victims. Originally, the government said convicted murderers would not be freed until they had been forgiven by the families.
The government portrayed the amnesty as a thank-you to the nation for supporting Saddam in a re-election referendum last week.
Ahmed al-Haboubi, a former government minister now living in Cairo, told the AP in the Egyptian capital: "The regime has made such gestures since it took power in 1968, but always turned against its opponents and either jailed or executed them."
Government opponents contemplating going home have the example of Saddam's two sons-in-law. The two brothers, married to Saddam's daughters, fled into exile in 1995 and talked with Western intelligence agents. They went back to Iraq six months later under an offer of forgiveness, and were killed within hours of their return.

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