- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said yesterday it had freed 1,000 detainees from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison at the Baghdad government’s request, in the largest release to date.

It was not clear if the decision to release the Sunni prisoners was linked to a demand by Arab Sunnis involved in negotiating a constitution.

Negotiations on the constitution, involving leaders from rival sectarian and ethnic groups and U.S. diplomats, continued amid a battery of conflicting public statements.

There were signs of splits within the Sunni camp, with delegates saying that some Sunnis had been won over to a compromise proposal from the Shi’ite and Kurdish-led government, while other Sunnis said they saw nothing to agree on.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading Sunni figure, said he had not even seen the document.

It remained unclear whether parliament would meet today to review the draft, or whether the draft would bypass parliament and be put to voters in an October referendum.

Most Sunni officials are fiercely opposed to a constitution that enshrines federalism, fearing it would give the Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders who dominate the government control over oil resources in northern and southern Iraq.

On the prisoner releases, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan said:

“I know this is a big one, but I can’t say if it is related to anything that is going on.”

A statement from President Jalal Talabani’s office said prisoners from the town of Madaen, just south of Baghdad, were released. Sunni negotiators had demanded freedom for Sunni prisoners from Madaen.

Whether the releases were part of negotiations on the charter, they are likely to ease concerns over the estimated 10,000 Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. detention centers in Iraq.

“This is a good move that we definitely welcome,” said Hussein al-Falluji, one of 15 Sunnis on the panel drafting the constitution.

The plight of prisoners in the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib, once one of Saddam Hussein’s most feared prisons, has been one of the most emotional issues for Iraqis since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the former Iraqi dictator in 2003.

A scandal broke in the facility west of Baghdad last year when leaked photographs showed U.S. military guards abusing prisoners.

“This major release, the largest to date, marks a significant event in Iraq’s progress toward democratic governance and the rule of law,” the U.S. military said.

Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders, as well as Washington, are hoping to get Sunni leaders on board for the constitution in a bid to weaken the insurgency and allow some of the 140,000 U.S. troops to leave.

President Bush again rejected calls to withdraw yesterday, saying that would only embolden insurgents.

“Our efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East will require more time, more sacrifice and continued resolve,” he said.

Negotiations over the charter, described as a blueprint for democracy by Shi’ites and Kurds, and a possible trigger for civil war by the Sunnis, have been deadlocked for weeks.

Apart from federalism, the fate of former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party also is an obstacle. Some Shi’ite figures say they should never be allowed back into public life, but Sunnis say not all former Ba’athists have blood on their hands.

Sunni leaders are threatening to mobilize a “no” vote in the referendum on the charter, especially in three provinces where they are a majority.

Under Iraq’s interim constitution, if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote “no,” the charter is rejected and parliament dissolved before December elections.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, urged all Iraqis to register to vote in the referendum, a message sure to inspire the majority Shi’ites, who make up 60 percent of the population.

In one example of Iraq’s complex violence, hospital officials said 20 members of two rival tribes were killed near the western town of Qaim. Both tribes are Sunni, but one supports the militant group al Qaeda in Iraq, clerics in the town said.

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