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U.S. Says Iraqi Prisoners To Be Freed Or Charged

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Thousands of Iraqi prisoners being held indefinitely without charge by U.S. forces will be freed or prosecuted in Iraqi courts by the middle of this year, the U.S. commander in charge of them said on March 22.

U.S. forces are currently holding just over 13,000 Iraqi prisoners, Brigadier-General David Quantock, commander of the U.S. detention operations in Iraq, told a news conference.

At its peak in November 2007, the number of prisoners held by the U.S. military was double that, he said.

"Within the next couple of days we will drop below 13,000 detainees, of which about 2,500 are being prosecuted," he said. Some 500 of those had been convicted, 109 with death sentences.

Some detainees had been held without trial for almost six years -- under a UN Security Council resolution which expired on December 31 -- stoking the anger of Iraqis and rights groups.

But under the terms of a bilateral pact which took effect on January 1, Washington agreed that all its detainees would be either transferred to Iraqi custody under arrest warrants or set free.

Of those still held, Quantock said, "there are 6,000-7,000 who we consider dangerous detainees... The government can look at the intelligence [and] provide assistance to build cases."

"We believe that we will, by the middle of summer, put those individuals in front of an Iraqi court," he said.

Each case would be reviewed by an investigative judge, who would decide whether to release or retain them under warrant.

The process of freeing detainees has been slow to kick off, creating strains between Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and minority Sunnis, who formed the bulk of the insurgency against the U.S., and now make up most of their detainees.

Quantock said 2,100 detainees had already been released this year because there was not enough evidence to prosecute them.

He raised the prospect that the U.S. military could soon close Camp Bucca, a bleak desert jail on the border with Kuwait, "once we get our total detainee population down below 8,000."

They would be transferred to Taji, just north of Baghdad.

Quantock said no detainees would be handed over to the Iraqi police unless there were valid arrest warrants against them, allaying concerns by human rights groups that they may be tortured or otherwise mistreated in Iraqi custody.

But it was up to the government of Iraq whether those who were set free should be compensated, he said.