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U.S. to free 500 detainees to help win support of Iraqis


BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. occupation authorities will begin releasing 506 low-risk security detainees this week in a gamble calculated to win the support, or at least the neutrality, of many Iraqis who had opposed the American presence.

At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition will increase the bounty for information leading to the capture or death of a newly identified cadre of insurgent leaders.

Senior coalition officials described both moves as an attempt to build on the momentum generated by the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last month.

"In a gesture to give impetus to those Iraqis who wish to reconcile with their countrymen, the coalition will permit some currently detained offenders to return to their homes and families," L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said in a statement.

Bremer said that while the "overwhelming majority" of Iraqis want a democracy, others chose to resist the United States. "They made a mistake and they know it," he said. "We are prepared to offer some of them a new chance."

The announcement came amid reports of new violence. Near Fallujah, Iraqi gunmen shot and killed two French civilian contractors working for American companies. Another French national was wounded in the Monday attack.

In Basra, Iraqi police opened fire yesterday on former Iraqi soldiers who staged a protest to demand payment of their salaries. At least three Iraqis were wounded and one was thought to have been killed.

The Associated Press reported that British forces calmed the situation, using loudspeakers to say in Arabic: "You will get what you deserve, but not in this way."

The first group of about 100 detainees is to be released from Abu Ghraib prison tomorrow. In all, coalition forces are holding at least 13,000 security detainees in various locations around the country. The 506 who have been selected for release were culled from a group of about 1,200 whose files were examined by a military review board.

"We are talking about low-level detainees who have not been involved in ongoing attacks against the coalition and Iraqis," said a senior coalition official. "We believe the individuals we have targeted are on the fence, and we want to give them a shot at contributing to the new Iraq."

The detainees must renounce violence and also must have a "guarantor" - in most cases a religious or tribal leader - who will accept responsibility for their good behavior.

This approach reflects a growing awareness on the part of U.S. officials of the importance of traditional leaders in Iraqi society. By giving these leaders a stake in suppressing opposition to the occupation, U.S. officials hope to build support for the planned transfer of power to a provisional Iraqi government this year.

In the short time since the capture of Hussein, U.S. military and civilian officials say they have been buoyed by a flood of fresh intelligence from Iraqis who have decided to cast their lot with the U.S. led-coalition.

The officials said the new intelligence has enabled them to identify a previously unknown set of midlevel operatives responsible for the attacks on Western and Iraqi targets. Rewards of up to $200,000 will be offered for information leading to their death or capture.

"In upcoming days we will unveil the new targets - faces and names," said the official who briefed reporters. "We will be getting tougher on the die-hard insurgents and at the same time using a carrot approach on minor violators who don't have blood on their hands."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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