Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has alternated tough talk with offers of concessions to demonstrators amid a political crisis that has pitted him against his erstwhile government partners.
The crisis has been worsened by weeks of demonstrations against Maliki’s rule in mostly-Sunni areas, with protesters alleging misuse of anti-terror laws to wrongfully hold members of their community, and claiming they were being targeted by the Shiite-led authorities.
Justice ministry officials released 178 inmates on Monday, spokesman Haidar al-Saadi said, bringing to 335 the number of detainees freed in the past week, according to Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani.
“I apologize in the name of the Iraqi state for any of you who were arrested and kept for this period of time, and it seems later that you are innocent,” Shahristani said.
“This has not only happened in Iraq, it happens in several countries. I ask all Iraqi security forces -- do not quickly arrest but concentrate on real criminals who have committed crimes against Iraqis.”
Among the prisoners freed were a number of old men and women, according to an AFP journalist present for the mass release.
Officials did not provide any breakdown of the prisoners, and did not give details on how many had finished jail terms and how many had been held without charge.
“This is a good step,” said Mehdi Saleh, a 42-year-old who had been held without charge in various Iraqi prisons since being arrested in 2009 in his hometown of Fallujah, a mostly Sunni city west of Baghdad.
“We were really desperate to be released,” he said.
Of four detainees and relatives of inmates interviewed by AFP, all said they were from Sunni-majority cities and towns.
Anti-government rallies have been ongoing since December 23 in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq, with the longest-running of the protests blocking off a key highway linking Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.
Maliki has threatened to direct security forces to intervene in the protests, which were sparked by the December 20 arrest of at least nine guards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi.
Essawi is a leading member of the secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc that has urged Maliki to quit although it is a member of his unity government.
Iraq is due to hold provincial elections in April, a key barometer of support for Maliki and his opponents ahead of national polls next year.
Sustained demonstrations against the government are rare in Iraq, and the size and staying power of the latest rallies are presenting a growing challenge to the government of Maliki. Many demonstrators are tapping into Arab Spring sentiments by demanding the downfall of the regime.
Iraqi authorities occasionally set free groups of inmates, but the latest move carried added significance because of the timing and high-profile nature of the release.