News agencies report that two U.S. Army truckloads of prisoners were released this afternoon from Baghdad's notorious Abu Graib prison, which is now called Baghdad Central Penitentiary.
A crowd of Iraqis had gathered outside the prison, waiting for family members to walk free. However, the U.S. military has told people to go home because those freed would be taken away and dropped off at undisclosed locations. Reuters reports that as the Army trucks left the prison today, scores of Iraqis jumped into waiting vehicles to follow the convoy.
The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer, announced the amnesty yesterday: "To give impetus to those Iraqis who wish to reconcile with their countrymen, we are announcing today [7 January] that the coalition will permit hundreds of currently detained Iraqis to return to their homes and to their families. Tomorrow, the coalition will release the first 100 detainees."
It is believed that U.S.-led forces are currently holding more than 10,000 prisoners in Iraq. U.S. officials say some 500 prisoners will be released over the next few days and were selected from a group of about 1,200 prisoners whose files were examined by a military board.
Bremer said releases will depend on two conditions being met. He said those detained must renounce violence and must have someone prominent who can vouch for them, such as a religious or tribal figure, who will be responsible for their actions. Bremer also said that "anyone with bloodstains on their hands or accused of torture or crimes against humanity" will not be considered for release.
The response of ordinary Iraqis, especially the relatives of those being detained, has been cautious.
Difaf Abed, a woman in her 30s living in Baghdad, told RFE/RL that her father, Hikmat Abed, and her two brothers are being held in coalition jails.
Her father was an Iraqi diplomat during the rule of Saddam Hussein. He worked in Lebanon and Iran and also was a member of the Ba'ath Party. Difaf says she does not know why her father was detained or where he is imprisoned. She says she has heard nothing about him or from him since he was taken from his home during a raid by U.S. soldiers last spring.
Abed says she doesn't believe it should be considered a crime for him to have worked in the Iraqi diplomatic service or to have belonged to the ruling party.
"I am one of the people here [in Iraq], and I am so angry at the Americans because they took innocent people. I know my two brothers and also my father [are] innocent. They are all innocent. So this makes me [angry], and I told an American soldier I saw somewhere here, I told him, 'I hate you. I just hate you because you are doing everything just upside down.'"
Abed says the U.S. announcement about prisoner releases has given her some hope that her brothers might be freed soon. She says her family knows where her brothers are being kept but has also not been informed about the charges against them. She says the U.S. should free them because they were not involved in politics. She says she has no hope that her father will be released.
Yahia Said is a research officer who specializes in Iraq and other nations in transition for the London School of Economics and Political Science. He says the prisoner amnesty might ease some tensions in Iraq but that such a move was not unexpected.
"It was expected to have a move towards reconciliation immediately after the capture of Saddam Hussein. And I think the strategy that they have chosen was at first to use the kind of surprise effect of the capture of Saddam Hussein to deal a strong blow to the so-called resistance. And now we are having this kind of, if you like, second shoe, the second prong of that strategy, which is to offer those who are still fighting with the resistance a chance to give up their fight."
However, Said says the number of people being released at the moment represents more of a symbolic gesture than any sort of breakthrough. He says the U.S. needs to take more formidable steps to change the negative attitude many Iraqis feel toward the American occupation.
"It's not enough," he said. "There should be a more pronounced move towards reconciliation. I think the best thing would be to announce a cease-fire, to announce a halt to military operations and to allow people some sort of a window of opportunity to give up arms. This has not come yet."
Yesterday, Bremer disclosed other American initiatives aimed at trying to stabilize Iraq. He announced a new reward program for the capture of former Ba'ath officials: "We have announced a reward program. We will pay $10 million for information leading to the capture of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri or information that he is dead. We will also pay $1 million each for 12 other notorious criminals on our black list."
Bremer also offered $200,000 in rewards for the capture of lesser criminals and said the names of those wanted individuals would be released soon.
Said says the release of the prisoners and the new reward program do not contradict each other because the reward program is targeting specific individuals, not political groups such as members of the former ruling party.
He says both initiatives indicate that the U.S. administration is using means "other than bullets" to try to stabilize the situation. At least 261 coalition soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since 1 May.