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Iran and Iraq exchange POWs amid Khatami overture to Saddam

BAGHDAD, March 16 (AFP) - Iran and Iraq exchanged prisoners of war on Tuesday, amid signs of warming ties between the two former foes.

Iraq said Iran handed over 450 Iraqis, held since the end of the eight year war between them, while Iraq handed back 54 Iranians. Tehran said 56 of its citizens had been returned.

News of the release came as the official Iraqi News Agency reported that President Saddam Hussein had received a message from his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khatami expressing a desire that Iran "strengthen and deepen" its relations with Iraq.

The agency said Khatami was replying to a message sent by Saddam on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution in February.

Since the end of the 1980-88 war, more than 90,000 prisoners have been exchanged, but the issue is one of the main bones of contention between the two sides, which have yet to sign a peace treaty.

According to Tehran at least 5,000 Iranian soldiers are still held in Iraq.

Baghdad says it has freed all Iranian POWs, but that 20,000 Iraqi POWs remain in Iranian jails.

The last prisoner handover was in mid-December, when 196 Iraqis and 16 non-Iraqis, plus the body of one Iraqi who died in captivity, were sent back across the land border.

An Iraqi spokesman described Tuesday's handover as a "purely humanitarian initiative, aimed at consolidating mutual trust, in as far as there are no Iranian prisoners of war in Iraq."

The Iraqi weekly al-Ittihad said the freed Iranians were among those "sentenced for their involvement in an act of treachery and betrayal," a reference to the 64 Iranians it admits holding for having taken part in a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in March 1991 just after the Gulf war.

Iraq said some of the prisoners released by Iran should have been freed on December 16, while others were from a group originally scheduled for release on January 23.

"The release of this group took place after certain obstacles preventing it from taking place at the proper time were resolved," the spokesman said, without elaborating.

In spite of continued disagreement over the prisoner issue, relations between Iran and Iraq have started to improve over the past year, with the two sides exchanging political and economic delegations.

An Iranian delegation of technocrats arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday for talks with oil ministry officials, the Iranian embassy said, without giving further details.


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