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Spark of protest flares outside Iraqi Information Ministry

By Jane Arraf
Baghdad Bureau Chief

Relatives of Iraqi prisoners demonstrate in front of the Information Ministry in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Relatives of Iraqi prisoners demonstrate in front of the Information Ministry in Baghdad on Tuesday.

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CNN's Jane Arraf reports on protests in which Iraqis are demanding to know the whereabouts of relatives after amnesty was given to prisoners. (October 22)
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Iraqi protestors angry about missing relatives gathered in front of the Iraqi Information Ministry in Baghdad, CNN's Nic Robertson reports (October 22)
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- An unprecedented spark of public protest against Iraqi authorities flared Tuesday as dozens of Iraqis demanding to know the fate of missing relatives gathered outside the Information Ministry to send a message to Saddam Hussein.

The noisy band of protesters Tuesday took ministry and security officials by surprise as they marched to the gates of the Information Ministry, where foreign media are based, to demand information about their relatives.

They dispersed after the sound of an automatic weapon fired into the air nearby, but some returned later with others to continue the protest and register the names of their relatives with the ministry.

A senior Information Ministry official said no one in the vicinity had fired a gun and said the second group was encouraged to come after the first received assurances that Information Minister Mohammad Saeed Sahaf would relay their demands. Sahaf had announced the presidential decree declaring the amnesty.

Iraqis around the ministry seemed stunned by the protest. "This is the first time this has happened," said one.

In Baghdad, demonstrations -- almost always against the United States and Israel -- are announced in advance and carefully orchestrated by the government.

Iraqi officials announced Monday that not a "single Iraqi" remained in prison after President Saddam Hussein granted a general amnesty on the weekend.

"We want our voice to reach the president, to officials," said a man who had not heard from his four brothers since they were detained 12 years ago. "We waited outside State Security for three days, they expelled us; we went to the Presidency Office and they expelled us; we went to the Presidential Palace and they expelled us."

The protesters, many of them older women, stressed that the protest was not an anti-Saddam Hussein demonstration by waving banners and chanting slogans in support of the Iraqi president. One man had slashed his arm all the way to the elbow as a sign of devotion. But in between the pro-Saddam chants, the demonstrators told reporters of sons, husbands and brothers not heard from since they were seized by security forces years ago.

"They came and took him away in a car. We haven't heard from him since," said one woman of her relative taken 12 years ago.

Many of the missing appeared to be young Shi'ite men, detained in the failed uprising against the Iraqi leadership following the 1991 Gulf War. One woman said her husband was a member of the banned Iranian-backed Da'wa party.

"Only God and President Saddam Hussein can help us," said one man, tearing at his clothing in anguish.

Iraqi officials tried unsuccessfully to prevent the protesters from speaking in front of the television cameras -- one putting his hand over the lens. Another urged the demonstrators to move on. "Where? Why?" one woman asked him.

The amnesty was itself remarkable, freeing political prisoners for the first time in the Iraqi regime's history. The government said it was a gesture by the Iraqi president to thank the people for the show of support of last week's referendum, but it also answered one of the most persistent criticisms of Iraq's checkered human rights record.

Thousands of Iraqis were freed Sunday from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad after the announcement that all Iraqis would be freed, regardless of their crimes. Those convicted of murder, embezzlement or bad debts have one month to obtain forgiveness from the victims' families and make restitution or be put back in jail.

The government Tuesday also appealed to Iraqis in exile to return home, saying any charges against them would be dropped and they would guarantee their safety.

The amnesty did not include non-Arab prisoners -- including two Americans held since 1996 in the foreigners' wing of Abu Ghraib. The U.S. Interests Section of the Polish Embassy in Baghdad -- the only U.S. representation here since the Gulf War -- said it had been informed by the Foreign Ministry the two men would remain in prison.

The two, Mahamed Samir Fakhri and Sam Jason, are of Iraqi origin and are accused of treason.

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