BAGHDAD The Iraqi cabinet approved a draft law on Wednesday which could free thousands of prisoners, one of main demands of Sunni Arab politicians boycotting the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.
U.S. forces and Iraqi authorities each hold about 25,000 prisoners, many from the Sunni Arab community behind an insurgency against the American-backed government after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The number of prisoners soared this year amid a stepped-up military campaign in which overall violence levels have fallen.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said prisoners under investigation, on trial or convicted could eligible to be freed.
The pardon would exclude those sentenced to death or convicted of killings, terrorism, kidnapping, drugs offenses or corruption, and would cover prisoners held by Iraq but not detainees in U.S. custody, he told Reuters. Earlier he had said U.S.-held detainees might also be freed.
Further details, including the number of prisoners to be freed, were not immediately revealed, and Sunni Arab leaders said they were reserving judgment until they received a copy of the law in parliament, which must approve it.
Freeing prisoners is one of the main demands of the Sunni Arab Accordance Front bloc, which quit the Shi'ite-led cabinet in August. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been trying to lure the Front back to create a cross-sectarian unity government.
"We have not seen the details of the draft. We are waiting to go to parliament and thoroughly check it. We hope the draft will cover the majority of the prisoners and not be limited to small numbers," Dhafer al-Ani, a senior Accordance Front member of parliament, told Reuters.
"Generally speaking, we are looking at this step as an indication of the government's good intentions to normalize relations with the Accordance Front."
Prisoners held by Iraqi authorities are supposed to pass through a normal legal system, but courts are slow and overburdened, and vast prison camps are crowded with thousands of men in wire-caged tents whose cases have never been heard.
U.S. forces keep nearly all their prisoners at one giant desert camp in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca, the size of a town. Nearly all are "security detainees", who can be held without charge for as long as they are deemed a threat.
Washington says it checks each case every six months. Critics say detainees have virtually no legal recourse and cannot see the evidence against them. Only a small proportion are ever charged or convicted of crimes.
U.S. commanders say they hope to free most of their detainees over the course of next year. After many months of rising detainee numbers, more are now being freed than captured, said military spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth Marshall.
U.S. forces have freed about 1,200 so far this month, while capturing about 600, he said. On average they free 50-60 a day.
The U.S. detainees are held under a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the American mission in Iraq, which expires at the end of 2008. Washington and Baghdad say they will negotiate the status of U.S.-held detainees beyond that date.
In another political development that could also prove important to reconciling Iraq's communities, the parliament of the largely autonomous Kurdish region agreed to a six-month delay in a referendum on whether Kirkuk province will join it.
Oil-rich Kirkuk is disputed between Kurds, who consider it their capital, and Arabs, many of whom settled there under Saddam. A referendum was due to be held at the end of this year, but the United Nations asked for more time to help organize it.
On the northern border, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish guerrilla targets in their fourth such cross-border raid in five days. U.S. and Iraqi leaders say they accept Turkey's right to strike separatist guerrillas, but hope cross border action will not escalate into a war that could further destabilize Iraq.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Ahmed Rasheed, Wisam Mohammed and Ross Colvin) (Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)