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U.S. to release Iraqi prisoners, offer bounties for most wanted

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In an effort to isolate anti-American insurgents by winning over their likely supporters, U.S. officials will announce Wednesday the release of hundred of Iraqis swept up in raids and new cash bounties for a second tier of most-wanted figures from the former regime.

The prisoner release will affect 506 Iraqi detainees who are not suspected of violent crimes and who will be under the supervision of tribal leaders or clerics who will act as informal probation officers, senior coalition officials told a selected group of reporters in Baghdad Tuesday.

The new most-wanted list will include about two dozen of the country's top fugitives and will offer rewards of up to $200,000 for each one arrested.

The moves are part of a new anti-insurgency campaign that a senior coalition official described as equal parts carrot and stick.

"We're going to get tough on the diehard insurgents, while at the same time use a carrot approach to the minor violators who do not have blood on their hands," the official said.

"We believe the individuals we have targeted (for release) are on the fence, and we want to give them a shot," he added.

A handful of reporters were briefed Tuesday on the plans and received early copies of a statement to be read Wednesday by L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, on the condition that they interview no one—either inside or outside Iraq—until the official announcement.

"Let me assure you that this is not a program for those with blood-stained hands," the Bremer statement said. "No person directly involved in the death of or bodily harm to any human being will be released."

With at least 9,000 Iraqis now in U.S. custody, the question of how to detain suspects without creating new enemies has plagued the occupation from the start. Interviews with military and political officials over the past two weeks suggest they are increasingly sensitive to the need to cultivate the hearts and minds of Iraqis who are not participating in the violence, yet do nothing to stop it.

The Iraqi governor of the Al Anbar province, where hundreds have been detained in raids in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, said the United States walks a fine line.

"Breaking doors, breaking things, of course it makes many people upset," said Abdul Kareem al-Rawy in an interview last month. "We've had this conversation many, many times with the American leaders."

Whether the release will engender much good will is unclear. The prisoner release will affect about 5 percent of all Iraqis in U.S. custody. Those were chosen through a review of the thousands of detainees being held.

Most detainees were excluded immediately because of violent records, security risk or intelligence value, officials said. An intelligence analyst pored through the remaining files and handpicked 1,200 as possibly eligible for release. Those records were then reviewed by board made up of a military intelligence officer, a judge advocate and a military police officer, which selected the 506 prisoners to be released.

Under the program, each detainee will be released to the supervision of a cleric or tribal leader. Those released face more jail time if they violate conditions of their release, but the guarantors face no legal consequences if their charges commit crimes. They simply promise "responsibility for the good conduct of the individual who is being set free," according to Bremer's statement.

"It's, in effect, a personal bond," a senior military official said.

The coalition officials said they did not know whether the prisoners, who come from a wide swath of Iraqi society, have been able to alert their families of the release. Most eligible detainees are housed in Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison southwest of Baghdad where Saddam Hussein's forces tortured and killed scores of Iraqis.

Coalition officials said the program is timely because it capitalizes on "the momentum" of Saddam's capture last month.

For the past two weeks, military sources have said the volume and value of intelligence in the post-capture period has increased significantly. They declined to elaborate.


(Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.