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Release of Iraqi Prisoners by Iran Seen as Hopeful Sign - 2002-01-22

The release of nearly 200 Iraqi prisoners held by Iran for more than a decade has raised hopes that hundreds of others will be freed this week. The prisoner release does not necessarily mean there has been a warming of relations between Tehran and Baghdad.

The Iraqi prisoners released by Iran on Monday were captured along the border during Shiite Muslim riots that erupted in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Another 500 prisoners who have been in Iranian custody since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war are also expected to be released this week.

In Iraq, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Baghdad had in turn handed over 50 Iranian prisoners it said were held for financial crimes or staying illegally in the country.

Iran and Iraq have also agreed to exchange the remains of more than 1,200 Iraqis and 574 Iranians who died while being held in detention.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been supervising the exchanges, which followed talks earlier this month.

Political science professor and analyst Walid Kazziha in Cairo says he believes the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States has caused both Iran and Iraq to reexamine their relationship. Mr. Kazziha says the repatriation is likely the result of shared concern over the U.S. led war against terrorism. "The two countries are facing a new set of problems, problems that aren't mainly concerned with borders and old problems of the past but problems that have come with the 11th of September," he said. "And I think there is a general feeling in the region that all of these difficulties and outstanding problems that these countries have had for a very long time, among themselves, ought to be swept aside."

In more than 13 years since their war, which left nearly one million people dead, the two neighboring countries have yet to normalize relations.

The prisoner exchange should not be viewed as a warming of relations between Iraq and Iran, according to retired Egyptian Army General Mohamed Kadry Said, now a military expert for the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"The event of exchanging prisoners, in my view, means nothing on practical terms," he said. "With respect to Iran, the first country in its threat perception is Iraq, and the same for Iraq," he said. "So maybe now they are facing another threat coming from, for example, the United States. But they know very well that it may happen one day or another that they will enter into another war between each other. Of course it's not permanent but I think the relations between Iraq and Iran, in general, in its roots and in the core is not good."

Despite this week's prisoner exchange, which is expected to be completed by Wednesday, Iran and Iraq accuse one another of continuing to detain tens of thousands of prisoners of war, a charge both countries deny.