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Mosul, Iraq (AFP) Feb 3, 2013
A top Iraqi minister said on Sunday that the authorities had released 3,000 prisoners over the past month in a bid to appease weeks of angry demonstrations in Sunni-majority areas of the country.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani's announcement is the latest in a series of government steps to curb the protests against the alleged mistreatment of the Sunni minority at the hands of the Shiite-led authorities.
"We have released 3,000 prisoners from Iraqi prisons in the last few weeks, and we transferred all women prisoners to prisons in their home provinces," Shahristani, who heads a cabinet committee tasked with addressing protesters' demands, told AFP during a visit to Mosul, a Sunni-majority city.
The two issues -- Sunni detainees being wrongfully held and poor treatment of female Sunni prisoners -- were among several that demonstrations in the north and west have focused on since they began in late December.
According to Shahristani, around 30,000 people are in Iraqi prisons, including those convicted of a range of offences and those being held without charge.
He estimated that about 17,000 were either convicted or accused of crimes unrelated to "terrorism."
The remaining 13,000 were around 6,000 convicted of terror-related offences, and a further 7,000 being held without charge or accused, but not yet convicted, of terror offences.
Shahristani was speaking after meeting Sunni tribal chiefs, religious leaders and representatives of demonstrators in Mosul, one of several cities where rallies have been held.
Protests have also called for reform of anti-terror laws that demonstrators say are used to target Sunnis, and in recent weeks they have increasingly called for the ouster of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
Iraq figures show violence down in January
The contrasting figures coincide with high tensions in Iraq, with a political crisis pitting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against his erstwhile government partners as he grapples with weeks of rallies calling for his ouster.
Figures compiled by Iraq's ministries of health, interior and defence said a total of 177 people were killed in January -- 120 civilians, 35 policemen and 22 soldiers. A further 258 were wounded.
The data also said 33 insurgents were killed and 72 others arrested.
A tally compiled by AFP based on reports from security and medical officials nationwide, however, put the toll at 246 dead.
According to AFP figures, most of the victims last month were killed in two separate strings of violence -- 88 people were killed in the January 15-17 period, and 70 others during January 22-23.
Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq has claimed responsibility for much of the violence, including a suicide bombing that killed a Sunni MP and a series of attacks in mid-January.
The militant group often carries out deadly attacks in order to destabilise the government and push Iraq back towards the sectarian war that blighted it from 2005 to 2008.
Violence is down markedly from its peak in 2006 and 2007 although attacks remain common.
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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