Iraqi Sunni Pledges Prison Improvements

The Associated Press
Saturday, August 18, 2007; 3:41 PM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Sunni vice president promised better treatment and a review for the inmates crowding the country's prison system in a video released Saturday showing a boisterous welcome from prisoners jammed inside tarp-covered cages.

In the visit Wednesday to the crowded eastern Baghdad prison, Tariq al-Hashemi said his moderate Sunni party was working to improve prison conditions and to free the innocent, though the party itself has not taken part in the Cabinet since Aug. 1.

A Sunni political alliance, the Accordance Front, which includes al-Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party has pulled its five ministers out of the government, saying Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to respond to a set of demands, including the release of security detainees held without charges.

Rights groups also have complained about random detentions and overcrowding in Iraq's prisons. Most of the inmates are believed to be Sunnis accused of participating in the insurgency, but critics say many are innocent and have been held for long periods without charge.

The video's release appeared timed to boost al-Hashemi's profile at a time when al-Maliki is trying desperately to shore up his crumbling government.

In it, many of the prisoners, who were jammed into outdoor wire cages covered with tarps, shouted out complaints of mistreatment and prolonged detentions.

"There is a new procedure in the works to review your files. Just be patient for a while," he told the prisoners, often crouching to address them face-to-face below the tarp that covered the upper half of the bars.

"Those who are outside are not much better off than you. It is true that you are in prison, but at least you live in safety here, believe me you are more secure than those outside," he added.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, hosted more talks among the political factions on Saturday, seeking support for an alliance of Kurdish and Shiite parties touted as a partial solution to the crisis.

"There are some issues that have not been resolved because they require time," said Naseer al-Ani, the head of the president's office. He singled out a law on the equal division of Iraq's oil wealth.

Al-Hashemi's party has refused to join al-Maliki's new alliance, which is intended to ensure a parliamentary majority to pass key U.S.-backed legislation ahead of a pivotal progress report on Iraq due to be presented to Congress by the top commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in September.

"If they insist on not returning to the government, the participating blocs will choose other Sunni Arab figures to fill the vacant posts. The political process should not be frozen," insisted Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker.

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