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At prison gate, Iraqi families vent

Indefinite detentions are within the law, US says, but angry Iraqis liken practice to Hussein's repression.

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A ripple of excitement spread through the few hundred family members, gathered outside the gates of the US military's Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, when three buses crammed with men rolled out of the front gate.

Tripping over their shapeless black robes, mothers rushed to the Marine cordon, some bursting into tears as they saw sons for the first time in months, many of them hanging out the windows and shouting "follow me, follow me" as the buses sped down the highway.

With the US release of 440 men earlier this week, many visitors thought they were witnessing another mass release and scrambled for their cars and taxis to follow the disappearing buses.

But the marines intervened to slow the convoy down, leaving families, some of whom had been waiting eight months to be reunited with loved ones, with fresh disappointment and a deepening sense of grievance against the US.

Fighting guerrilla wars is always ugly, and Abu Ghraib and two other principal detention centers - Um Qasr and Habbaniyah - are another face of the compromises regarding American values that the US feels it needs to make to win here. Charges or evidence aren't needed to keep men indefinitely detained.

"Is this the definition of the freedom that America promised us?" asks Ibrahim Hamid, a farmer from the Sunni Triangle town of Ramadi. His brother Ahmed has been held at Abu Ghraib for five months, ever since a platoon of soldiers broke into their home during dinner. "They dragged him off, no explanations why. What's the difference from Saddam?" he asks.

An ugly but perhaps necessary aspect of the US occupation of Iraq has been the prolonged detention of suspected insurgents, many of whom are never charged and are eventually released.

The US says it has complied with the Geneva Conventions in handling its prisoners in Iraq, pointing out the conventions allow for the detention of people "reasonably believed" to have been involved in attacks on coalition forces.

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