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Detainees walk from a bus while others pray on the ground as detainees are released from U.S.- and Iraqi-run prisons around Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, at the main bus station in central Baghdad on Wednesday.

Detainees walk from a bus while others pray on the ground as detainees are released from U.S.- and Iraqi-run prisons around Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, at the main bus station in central Baghdad on Wednesday. (Khalid Mohammed / AP)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the release Wednesday of the first 600 of some 2,000 Iraqi prisoners to be freed in coming days in an effort toward reconciliation and security.

Iraqi officials said this week they would seek to release nearly half of the estimated 28,000 prisoners in Iraqi and U.S. custody in the country. The first 2,000 of those were to be released from some of Iraq’s worst prisons.

The amnesty is part of an effort to stop fighting between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni communities, officials have said. The prisoner reviews will be done in batches of 500 over the coming days.

At a Baghdad news conference earlier this week, Maliki compared the prisoner release program to the South African “truth and reconciliation” project in the 1990s.

In Maliki’s view, the program was important because, while some criminals were prosecuted, others were sent back to rebuild a shaken country.

“We are ready to turn a new page with those who so desire it, and we will respond with force to those who want to pursue violence,” Maliki told reporters. “Those who want to end the bitterness of the past have the way open through the process of national reconciliation, but those who choose bloodshed will find us ready to deal with them.”

Maliki has previously said he believes Iraqi forces will be ready to take over responsibility for security within the 18 months.

Iraqi officials say the prisoner release program does not include “loyalists” of former dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party or “terrorists whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people.”

But Omar al-Jubori, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party — the largest Sunni group in the government — told The Associated Press, “All the prisoners in the American and the governmental prisons will be released to give happiness and hope to every detainee and every oppressed person in this country.”

Previous prisoner releases — while cited by U.S. military officials as a sign of progress — have been greeted with skepticism by many line units, who say too many insurgents are slipping through the cracks of what they call a “catch and release” system.

The recidivism rate for those prisoners released from U.S. facilities in Iraq stands at around 5 percent, according to statistics provided by U.S. detention officials in March.

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