BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq has begun setting free hundreds of inmates, officials said Monday, offering a concession to Sunni protesters demonstrating against the country's Shiite-led government.
Protesters from Iraq's Sunni minority have been rallying for more than three weeks against what they see as unfair treatment by the government against their sect.
The release of detainees has been one of their main demands, and some of those freed Monday came from areas where anti-government unrest has surfaced.
Sustained demonstrations against the government are rare in Iraq, and the size and staying power of the latest rallies are presenting a growing challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many demonstrators are tapping into Arab Spring sentiments by demanding the downfall of the regime.
The unrest is raising fears of a coming upsurge in sectarian bloodshed. Violence has dropped overall in Iraq since the nation neared a civil war several years ago, but attacks still happen frequently, usually in the form of Sunni militants targeting Shiites or security forces in an attempt to undermine the government's authority.
Iraqi authorities occasionally set free groups of inmates, but the latest move carried added significance because of the timing and high-profile nature of the release.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced the releases at a ceremony at a Baghdad prison attended by dozens of detainees, including some dressed in bright yellow prison jumpsuits. Those being freed were handed boxed Qurans and showered with candy as television cameras rolled.
"I hope that this will be an opportunity for you as Iraqis, who are keen to see the security and safety of the country and the stability of Iraq, to participate with us in spreading the spirit forgiveness and hope," al-Shahristani said at the ceremony.
Al-Shahristani, one of the prime minister's most trusted political allies, oversees a government committee, formed earlier this month, that is charged with looking into protesters' demands.
He said 335 detainees have gained their freedom in the past week, but he did not give details on their backgrounds or alleged crimes. More will be released in the coming days, he said, and he encouraged citizens to come forward with details of detainees they believe are being unfairly held.