BAGHDAD — Iraq has begun setting free hundreds of inmates, officials said Monday, offering a concession to Sunnis demonstrating against the Shi’ite-led government.
Protesters from Iraq’s Sunni minority have been rallying for more than three weeks against what they see as unfair treatment by the government.
The release of detainees has been one of their main demands. Some of those freed Monday came from areas of anti-government unrest.
The size and staying power of the latest rallies present a growing challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many demonstrators are tapping into Arab Spring sentiments by demanding the downfall of the government.
The unrest is raising fears of an upsurge in sectarian bloodshed. Violence has dropped overall in Iraq since the nation neared a civil war several years ago, but attacks still happen frequently, usually in the form of Sunni militants targeting Shi’ites or security forces.
Iraqi authorities occasionally free inmates, but the latest move had added significance because of the timing and high-profile nature of the release.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced the releases at a ceremony at a Baghdad prison attended by dozens of detainees, including some dressed in bright yellow prison jump suits. Those being freed were handed boxed Korans and showered with candy as television cameras rolled.
‘‘I hope that this will be an opportunity for you as Iraqis, who are keen to see the security and safety of the country and the stability of Iraq, to participate with us in spreading the spirit of forgiveness and hope,’’ Shahristani said.
One of the prime minister’s most trusted allies, he oversees a committee, formed this month, charged with looking into protesters’ demands.
He said 335 detainees have gained their freedom in the past week, but he did not give details on their backgrounds or alleged crimes. More will be released in coming days, he said, and he encouraged citizens to come forward with details of detainees they believe are being unfairly held.
Some of those released had finished their sentences but had not been set free because of bureaucratic snags.