BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government released more than 300 prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws on Monday as a goodwill gesture to Sunni Muslim demonstrators staging protests against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Three weeks of demonstrations, mainly in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, have evolved into a tough challenge for the Shi'ite premier, increasing worries that Iraq risks sliding back into the sectarian confrontation of its recent past.
As one condition, Sunni leaders had demanded the release of detainees held under anti-terrorism law many believe authorities use unfairly to target their minority sect.
A committee reviewing cases freed 335 detainees whose jail terms had already finished or whose cases were dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
"In name of the Iraqi State, I apologize to those who were arrested and jailed and were later proven to be innocent," said Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, a senior Iraqi Shi'ite figure heading the committee.
Thousands of protesters are still camped out in Anbar, once the home of al-Qaeda's campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, where they have blocked a major route to Jordan and Syria near the Sunni heartland city of Ramadi.
Detainee releases were just one condition from protesters. Other demands range from the more radical calls for Maliki to step down, to the end of a campaign to track down former members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
Since the fall of strongman Saddam in 2003, many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been sidelined by the country's Shi'ite majority. The country's government, split among Shi'ite, Sunni and ethnic Kurds, is deadlocked over how to share power.