Iraq's Maliki hails mass prisoner release

( Reuters ) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the release of 450 detainees from U.S. detention centres on Thursday and urged them to help improve security in the country.

The Shi'ite prime minister spoke to rows of prisoners at Camp Victory, a giant U.S. base near Baghdad's airport. Many of the men squinted in the sun and wore what appeared to be military-issue checked shirts.

"We want them to turn back ... to participate in the process of building and developing this country," Maliki told reporters.

"Security is the golden key," he said. "We will move strongly to make 2008 the year of construction and services."

Thursday's ceremony marked one of the largest U.S. detainee releases this year. Around 350 prisoners were freed from U.S. custody on Oct. 17 in a move marking the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan.

In recent weeks, about 50 prisoners a day had been freed, added First Lieutenant Angela Webb, a deputy spokeswoman for U.S. detainee operations in Iraq. About 6,300 detainees have been released so far this year, she said.

Still, some 25,000 prisoners remain in U.S. custody in Iraq, and more are brought in every week. Thousands of security detainees are also held in Iraqi jails.

The fate of Iraqi detainees has been a flashpoint since U.S. jailors were pictured abusing naked detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in the months following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The issue is an emotional one, not only in Iraq where the majority of prisoners have been Sunni Arabs accused of ties to the insurgency, but across the Arab world.

Jumaa al-Suwaidawi said he was travelling to western Anbar province in April 2005 when he was detained by U.S. forces. At the time, Anbar was the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

"The treatment was bad at the beginning. Thank God, it was good this year," said Suwaidawi, who comes from the Anbar capital Ramadi.

Most of the men -- who Webb said had been captured because they were seen as an "imperative security threat" -- were held for about a year.

Before their release, prisoners signed a pledge that they would no longer endanger other Iraqis.

Maliki said prisoners who did not pose a threat should be released quickly.

His government is hoping to capitalise on a lull in violence, especially around Baghdad, to bridge political divisions and nudge the country closer to economic resurrection and repair deep social fissures.

Adel al-Dulaimi, an Anbar resident, was taken to a U.S. detention centre last January.

His first thoughts as he prepared to go home on Thursday were of his children and whether they were still studying.

"I will live like any free citizen in his country," he said.

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