Nouri al-Maliki has fulfilled another demand of the US Congress and the Sunnis in Iraq towards national reconciliation. The Baghdad government began releasing thousands of detainees accused of all but the worst of crimes during the 2003-2008 time period, most of them Sunnis. The release further strengthens the bonds forged with the Sunnis over the past several months and enhanced by Maliki’s crackdown on Shi’ite militias:

Ghafur was among 122 detainees released from an Iraqi-run prison in Sulaimaniyah and given their freedom at a ceremony here Monday as part of the largest wave of prisoner releases since the war began. The Iraqi government set them free to reintegrate men into society who were accused of relatively minor crimes, and ease the strains on a prison system operating well beyond its capacity. ….

Most of those released were Sunnis who had been low-level army officials or former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. They were among thousands of Iraqis who were arrested without charges by coalition and Iraqi forces. The discharges signal “a return to some sense of normalcy,” said U.S. Army Col. David Paschal, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, who attended the ceremony. “At some point, the fighting must stop.”…

The prisoners are being freed under an amnesty law passed by Iraq’s parliament in February. More than 52,400 detainees in government custody have applied for their freedom. Of those, nearly 78%, or more than 40,000, were granted amnesty. More than one in five, though, were denied because they are being held for crimes not covered by the law. These include killing, kidnapping, rape, embezzling government funds, selling drugs and smuggling antiquities.

The amnesty law does not cover more than 23,000 Iraqis who are in U.S. custody. Still, Air Force Capt. Rose Richeson, spokeswoman for coalition detainee operations, says nearly 8,000 detainees held at two coalition detention centers have been released since September, an average of 52 a day. “It is reasonable to expect that rate of release will continue,” she said.

This marks yet another benchmark in the Maliki government’s progress in meeting the political benchmarks set by Congress. It also defuses a longstanding point of friction with the Sunni tribes who have complained loudly about the imbalance in treatment for their communities by Baghdad. Their efforts to work within the political system have paid off, and their win in gaining amnesty for so many detainees will encourage them to work within the democratic system rather than conduct insurgencies against it.

The release allows both Iraq and the US to focus on bigger fish — and to keep them from recruiting insurgents from the inside. Both US and Iraqi officials note the danger of leaving massive numbers of minor violators in close proximity to real hard-line extremists. The prisons become recruiting and training centers for future terrorists, especially when neither have any real prospects for a normal life in post-Saddam Iraq.

At the ceremony in Sulaimaniyah, the released prisoners danced and celebrated with their former guards and their families. If that spirit can remain and the nation’s infrastructure can be restored and modernized, Iraq can reach a real reconciliation quickly. Perhaps at some point, the US will notice this progress and recommit themselves to encouraging and protecting it.