US military starts freeing Iraqis for Ramadan

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BAGHDAD, Sep 13 (Reuters) The US military began releasing Iraqi detainees today to mark the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan, an Iraqi official said.

The military reached a deal with Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi last month to conduct ''special Ramadan releases''. It says it is holding 23,000 Iraqis.

Omar al-Jubouri, an adviser on human rights to Hashemi, told Reuters that 43 Iraqis were freed from the Camp Cropper detention facility near Baghdad's international airport.

Between 50 to 80 Iraqis would be freed each day from US prisons in Iraq during the holy month, the military said in a statement. It was not immediately clear why the number released on Thursday was less than the range given by the military.

Ramadan is expected to begin today. The lunar month begins at the sighting of the new moon.

Major-General Douglas Stone, commanding general of US detainee operations, said Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites would be reviewed equally and impartially under the programme.

''This will be a completely non-sectarian, non-political process,'' Stone said in the military statement.

''The detainees being released are only those who MNF-I (Multi National Force-Iraq) has determined no longer need to be detained for imperative reasons of security,'' he said.

US forces and Iraq's own security forces have imprisoned tens of thousands of detainees without charge in the more than four years since the fall of President Saddam Hussein.

Many held by both US and Iraqi authorities are Sunni Arabs accused of participating in the insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government, and their treatment is an emotional issue for the minority Sunni Arab community.

Hashemi has long complained about the detention of Sunni Arabs.

The issue was a key factor that prompted the main Sunni bloc, the Accordance Front, to quit the government last month.

The deal with the US military is separate to an accord Hashemi signed with Iraq's top Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders in August, which also called for the release of many detainees.

Jubouri said there had been no movement yet on freeing prisoners under that agreement. Some 32,000 detainees were being held in Iraqi detention facilities and prisons, he added.


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