Faced with protests, Iraq frees hundreds of detainees

BAGHDAD - Iraq has freed 335 inmates in the past week, a top minister said Monday while apologising to detainees held without charge, part of efforts to curb weeks of rallies by meeting key demands of protesters.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has alternated tough talk with offers of concessions to demonstrators amid a political crisis that has pitted him against his erstwhile government partners.

The crisis has been worsened by weeks of demonstrations against Maliki's rule in mostly-Sunni areas, with protesters alleging misuse of anti-terror laws to wrongfully hold members of their community, and claiming they were being targeted by the Shiite-led authorities.

Justice ministry officials released 178 inmates on Monday, spokesman Haidar al-Saadi said, bringing to 335 the number of detainees freed in the past week, according to Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani.

Among the prisoners freed were a number of old men, according to an AFP journalist present for the mass release.

"I apologise in the name of the Iraqi state for any of you who were arrested and kept for this period of time, and it seems later that you are innocent," Shahristani said.

"This has not only happened in Iraq, it happens in several countries. I ask all Iraqi security forces - do not quickly arrest but concentrate on real criminals who have committed crimes against Iraqis."

Anti-government rallies have been ongoing since December 23 in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq, with the longest-running of the protests blocking off a key highway linking Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.

Maliki has threatened to direct security forces to intervene in the protests, which were sparked by the December 20 arrest of at least nine guards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi.

Essawi is a leading member of the secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc that, while a member of Maliki's unity government, has urged him to quit.

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