About 20 Iraqis walked out of Abu Ghraib prison Monday into the arms of an ebullient crowd staging a vigil to protest U.S. soldiers' treatment of inmates at the facility.
Protesters waved Iraqi flags and chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) as they raced across a highway toward the prison's gate in response to news of the men's release.
The newly freed detainees were escorted to a tent set up across the road, where they were given water and food. Some sobbed as organizers of the vigil recorded their names.
Hundreds of people had gathered at a hot, dusty spot across the highway from the prison gate Monday in answer to a call that went out at mosques during prayer services on Friday.
Through much of the day, the demonstration felt more like a religious revival or family reunion than a protest. People pitched tents and hung banners that read in English and Arabic: "Enough humiliation to the detainees" and "Return back the parents to their families."
A young boy with a green towel draped over his head sold soda from a plastic cooler filled with ice. A contingent from the city of Fallujah sat inside one of the colorful striped tents, eating chicken, biscuits and cold pickles.
When a rose-colored tour bus drove by and honked in support, a man planting an Iraqi flag stopped to wave. "This is what any honest Iraqi would do," said Mohammed Yaseen, 37, a Fallujah resident and member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which organized the sit-in. "We are doing our best to push the occupiers to release our detainees."
Following the disclosure of abuse at the prison, U.S. officials announced plans to halve its population, which now stands at about 3,400, according to Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military's top spokesman in Iraq.
U.S. military officials said they plan to release about 400 detainees on Friday. It was not immediately clear how Monday's batch of released prisoners was chosen or whether their release was in any way caused by the demonstrators' presence outside.
Seven soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company from Cresaptown, Md., have been charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One of them, Spec. Jeremy Sivits, was sentenced last week to a year in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of abuse.
[Speaking Monday night at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., President Bush called for demolishing the prison.]
At the vigil, Hasoon Abood Fajr, 33, from the southern city of Mahaweel, said he was concerned that the abusers would not be appropriately punished and made a point heard often at the gathering. "They should be tried by the Iraqi law since they tortured Iraqis," he said, sitting in a tent for participants from his community. "No religion approves what they did, even Christianity, which they claim they belong to. They do only what brutal animals do."
Hussein Suheil, 22, one of the prisoners freed on Monday, said he spent nine months in Abu Ghraib on charges of possessing weapons and attacking U.S. soldiers. "They treated us badly, very badly," he said. "I cannot describe the situation for you. You should see it. The simple thing they did is that they made prisoners walk naked, without any respect to dignity. "
Suheil said interrogators sprayed a substance into his eyes and nose that made him dizzy.
By his account, treatment in the prison improved after the scandal broke. "After the pictures published in all of the newspapers, the Americans changed their way of treating us," he said. "They started treating us kindly."
Adnan Baraa, 28, who sat in the Mahaweel tent eating lunch, said he had three relatives in the prison. "But what brought me here is not only them but all of the detainees being abused day and night," he said.
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.