updated 9/26/2005 3:57:10 AM ET 2005-09-26T07:57:10

The U.S. military began on Monday to release 1,000 Iraqi detainees from Abu Ghraib prison at the request of the Iraqi government in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The first 500 prisoners were loaded onto Iraqi public buses and driven out of the notorious prison on Monday morning. The rest will be freed later this week, the U.S. military said.

Arab governments often pardon nonviolent offenders during the Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Oct. 4 or 5. Each year, the start of the holiday is decided by senior Muslim clerics after they sight the sliver of the moon appears in the sky.

But Monday's action, and the release of 1,000 other Abu Ghraib detainees last month, also appeared to be part of the Iraqi government's effort to persuade Iraqis to vote in the Oct. 15 national referendum on Iraq's draft constitution, especially the Sunni minority.

The U.S. government said it only releases detainees who are not guilty of serious, violent crimes -- such as bombing, torture, kidnapping, or murder -- and who have had admitted their crimes, renounced violence, "and pledged to be good citizens of a democratic Iraq."

But September's release of 1,000 detainees also came at the request of Sunni representatives taking part in then-stalled talks about the drafting of Iraq's new constitution. The officials asked the Iraqi government to start releasing thousands of prisoners who have been languishing in the jail for months without being charged with a crime.

Released prisoners mostly Sunni
At the time, President Jalal Talabani agreed to release many detainees before the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution, the draft of which is now complete. Sunni negotiator Saleh al-Mutlaq said then that most of the detainees to be freed from Abu Ghraib would be Sunni Arabs.

When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, his Sunni majority held most of the power, but the current Iraqi government, elected last January, is mostly controlled by Kurds and majority Shiites since many Sunnis boycotted that vote.

Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency and Sunni religious and political leaders are calling for a boycott or a "no" vote in the Oct. 15 referendum. Many Sunnis believe the constitution will give too much power to Shiites living in southern Iraq and Kurds living in the north.

The Sunni Triangle in the center of Iraq, including Baghdad, is the location of most of the violence in Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency.

Abu Ghraib prison, built by Saddam's regime in the 1970s on the outskirts of Baghdad, was retained as a major detention center by the U.S. occupation authorities after the occupation of Iraq in 2003. It gained international notoriety after a number of U.S. military personnel were charged with humiliating and assaulting detainees at the facility.

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