BAGHDAD (AFP) – The US military in Iraq announced on Thursday the start of a programme to release 50 to 80 detainees a day during Ramadan as security forces went on alert for fear of attack during the Muslim holy month.
Ramadan began on Thursday for the minority Sunni population while the majority Shiites will commence the month of dawn to dusk fasting on Friday.
“Task Force 134, the (US-led) organisation responsible for detainee operations, expects to release between 50 and 80 detainees per day during this holy month,” a military statement said.
“The detainees being released are only those who (US-led forces) have determined no longer need to be detained for imperative reasons of security,” the task force commander Major General Douglas Stone said in the statement.
Those eligible for release under Operation Lion’s Paw, a joint venture between the Iraqi government and US-led forces, will be reviewed by an impartial board, Stone said.
“The process will be fair, open to all detainees who are qualified and will reflect the detainee population, with Sunni and Shiite detainees reviewed equally and impartially,” the statement said.
“This will be a completely non-sectarian, non-political process” that will allow prisoners to be home for Ramadan.
Around 20,000 detainees are held in US-run prisons in Iraq, mostly in Camp Bucca near the southern port city of Basra and in Camp Cropper near Baghdad.
Iraqi authorities meanwhile have stepped up security measures for Ramadan, which has seen brutal insurgent attacks since the US-led invasion in March 2003.
“Orders have been given to the Iraqi police to be extra alert. They have been told to observe any dubious gatherings or inform bomb squads immediately if they see any car parked on sidewalks,” an interior ministry official said.
Baghdad, the epicentre of Shiite-Sunni conflict, is already under a massive security crackdown by US and Iraqi forces as part of a troop “surge” strategy launched in February.
Authorities have relaxed the nightly curfew from Thursday.
Instead of coming into effect at 11.00 pm, the curfew in the capital will now commence at midnight, although it will as before continue to be enforced until 5.00 am.
The vehicle curfew in Baghdad on every Friday, the Muslim day of rest, has also been lifted for the period of Ramadan.
But vehicles will not be allowed to ply on city’s main bridges that link the east of the capital with the west, officials said.
In the past few months insurgents have targeted Iraq’s infrastructure such as bridges in a bid to destabilise the movement of people and traffic.
Baghdad has also ordered the closure during Ramadan of shops selling alcohol for the entire period and directed restaurants and eateries to down shutters from sunset to sunrise, except those at factories and universities.
Roadside cafes can operate as long as they cover their doors.
The US military has said it expects Ramadan to be relatively peaceful compared to the past few years following the military crackdown since February.
The military assault has reduced high-profile car bomb attacks in Baghdad and sectarian violence, although insurgents have managed to set off massive attacks in remote parts of the country.