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Iraq, Saudi Arabia Swap Prisoners

RIYADH (Reuters) -- Saudi Arabia has returned 16 Iraqi prisoners to Iraq and received eight Saudis in return ahead of a new agreement on swapping convicted criminals, Saudi media said.

The move is the latest in slow steps by Saudi Arabia and Iraq to rebuild ties after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought leaders from the majority Shi'ite Muslim community to power.

A Saudi Interior Ministry statement carried by state media said the swap was to strengthen security "in preparation for an agreement on exchanging those convicted of jail sentences."

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said earlier this month that Saudi Arabia would repatriate all 434 Iraqis in Saudi jails under a new agreement.

Rubay'i said the Iraqi prisoners included drug traffickers, Iraqis who had crossed into the kingdom illegally, and other criminals, including "terrorists."

Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leader of Sunni Islam and is suspicious of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ties to Shi'ite Iran. Riyadh is yet to name an ambassador to Baghdad despite having announced last year that it would send one.

Most of the foreign Islamist militants in Iraq, who often target Shi'a in suicide bomb attacks, are thought to be Saudis.