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Sovereignty over waters returned to Iraq

First mission: protect oil ports

UMM QASR, Iraq -- Iraq regained sovereignty over its territorial waters yesterday, with the US-led coalition handing over responsibility for safeguarding adjacent seas to the country's navy.

The handover was celebrated with the raising of the Iraqi flag at a naval base in the southern Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasar. US, British, and Iraqi officers attended the ceremony.

The coalition handed over political sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government June 28 but kept control over Iraqi territorial waters.

''Iraqis have taken responsibility for protecting territorial waters today and actual work will begin tomorrow," said Colonel Hamid Sarhan, commander of the Iraqi Coastal Defense Force.

''Our first mission will be to protect oil ports in Basra and Khor al-Amaya from saboteurs and infiltrators."

Iraq's southern ports are vital since most of Iraq's oil is exported through the area. The normal levels for exports from Basra and Khor Amaya total 1.85 million barrels a day. But the industry has been targeted by insurgents trying to drive out foreign forces and destabilize the interim government.

Suicide bombers exploded three small boats near the Khor al-Amaya and the larger Basra terminals in April as US Navy teams approached. The Basra terminal was partly damaged, and exports were halted for a day.

Sarhan said the 360-member Iraqi naval force has 15 speed boats equipped with light machine guns and five larger vessels.

Meanwhile yesterday, about 180 more detainees were released from US and Iraqi government custody under a process set up following the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, the US command said.

None of the freed were ''high-value detainees," who are processed separately from the 1,700 ''security detainees" at detention center at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson.

An investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib grew into a scandal in April after media organizations began transmitting pictures of naked, terrified Iraqi prisoners being abused and humiliated by grinning American guards.

A review and release board was set up by the coalition and the ministries of justice, human rights and interior of the interim Iraqi government, the release said.

Yesterday's release was the third conducted since the board convened Aug. 21.

Johnson, an officer with Iraq Detention Operations, said two Iraqi women being held were not among those freed yesterday since they are considered high-value detainees.

A militant group claiming responsibility for the abduction of British engineer Kenneth Bigley initially demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners at US-controlled prisons -- a move US officials ruled out.

The United States said at the time it was holding only two female prisoners.

In other developments:

Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in London, insisted his country's elections will go ahead as scheduled next year, despite the ongoing violence.

Despite the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government, the majority of Iraqis regard their country as being under foreign occupation, said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the top UN envoy to Iraq.

Simona Torretta, one of two Italian aid workers freed from captivity, said she and Simona Pari feared for their lives throughout their abduction, despite receiving what they called ''privileged" treatment from their captors.

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