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Joy, tears and chaos as U.S. frees prisoners

The U.S.  military freed about 60 Iraqi prisoners Thursday after announcing an amnesty for hundreds of low-threat detainees.
A former prisoner, left, embraces his brother, center, and another former captive Thursday.Ali Jasim / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. Army freed scores of Iraqi prisoners Thursday, a day after announcing an amnesty for low-threat detainees it rounded up over the past eight months.

About 60 prisoners were driven in U.S. military trucks from the notorious Abu Ghraib jail, west of Baghdad, and left by the roadside not far away, where they were met by jubilant friends and relatives.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad said the process of releasing prisoners under the amnesty had begun, but he would not say specifically if those freed in a swirl of publicity Thursday came under the new program.

The U.S. military has about 9,500 people in detention throughout Iraq and releases some almost every day, most of them people who have been held for 72 hours or less. Troops also detain new suspects every day in raids across Iraq.

Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, announced Wednesday that about 500 prisoners who have been held for months on suspicion of associating with anti-U.S. insurgents would be released in the coming weeks, with 100 to be freed Thursday.

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said at a news conference that for security and privacy reasons the coalition did not intend to provide precise numbers of those released under the amnesty, which was billed as an act of reconciliation.

Those due for release under the amnesty have not been directly involved in killing U.S. or coalition forces or planning attacks but were seized because of suspicious behavior or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Joy and anger
While there was confusion over who exactly had been released, there was both jubilation and anger among those set free, many of whom had been held for several months.

One man said that now he was out, he would take any opportunity to attack U.S. troops.

Iraqi women cry after realising that their loved ones were not released, outside the U.S.-run penitentiary in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib January 8, 2004. U.S. authorities released about 60 Iraqis from what was Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison the day after a new amnesty program was announced. REUTERS/Ceerwan AzizCeerwan Aziz / X01615

“I’m free, but now I will attack them,” he said.

The man, who would not give his name, said he was detained in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, several months ago and had been poorly treated by the Americans in Abu Ghraib, the prison where former President Saddam Hussein once kept his worst enemies.

After the gates opened, two Army trucks loaded with prisoners left what has been renamed Baghdad Central Penitentiary and sped away.

Families hoping their friends and relatives would be among those let out and who had waited for hours for the release jumped in cars to follow the trucks to where the prisoners were dropped under a highway bridge, about a mile away.

Wearing civilian clothes, those freed shouted and cheered as they were greeted by loved ones, many with tears in their eyes.

Those waiting thronged around the released prisoners, showing them pictures of their loved ones. Many freed prisoners had messages from those still captive.

“Have you seen my son?” Ahlam Azawi asked released prisoner Abdullah Ahmad, showing him the photograph of her son.

“Bush is taking our kids. Why? What have we done?” asked Azawi, who said she had not heard from her 28-year-old son, the eldest of her eight children, since he was arrested in a raid on his home in the Huriyah neighborhood of Baghdad.

“I don’t know where he is. ... We have not seen him. I don’t know where they took him,” she said.

“We don’t want Bush. Get him off our land — him and his army,” she added.