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Iraq, Iran Plan Meeting on POWs

April 20, 1998

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Ten years after a conflict that left more than a million dead or wounded, Iraq and Iran hope to bridge differences with talks on freeing their remaining prisoners of war.

The former adversaries planned to discuss a final exchange of prisoners at a meeting at an Iraqi border post Monday.

The meeting follows the recent release of more than 5,000 Iraqis and more than 300 Iranians, the largest prisoner swap between the neighbors since 1990. It could lead to freedom for many more prisoners, some jailed for up to 18 years.

An Iranian diplomat in Baghdad said his government hoped to close out all ``humanitarian issues″ with Iraq, referring to POWs and those missing from the two countries’ 1980-1988 war.

The thaw in the countries’ stormy relations began when Iraq’s state-run media halted its bitter attacks on Iran after Iranian President Mohammed Khatami took office in August. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed to respond to any step by Iran to normalize ties.

Now, even visits by junior Iranian officials are highlighted by Iraq’s official press, and the country’s most influential newspaper _ Babil, owned by Saddam’s eldest son, Odai _ has repeatedly called for an alliance between Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf has visited Iran twice since Khatami took over. His talks in the capital Tehran led to the huge prisoner swap early this month.

Under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Iran handed over 5,584 Iraqi POWs in return for three Iranian prisoners and 316 so-called civil law detainees, those that Iraq says were arrested after the conflict.

The Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, speaking to The Associated Press on customary condition of anonymity, said the meeting Monday would be held at the border post of Mundhariya, 75 miles east of Baghdad.

The ICRC praised the talks.

``The ICRC hopes that these talks can lead to an overall solution of the whole issue,″ said Frank Bertelsbeck, an ICRC spokesman in Baghdad.

Iran has so far released more than 56,000 Iraqi POWs. More than 10,000 Iraqis are still in captivity in Iran, according to Iraqi officials.

Iraq maintains it is not holding any Iranian POWs. The Iranian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed Iraq still held some Iranians, but he did not say whether they were POWs or civil law detainees.

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