Iraq has agreed to repatriate Saudi prisoners who fought alongside Islamist insurgents against US-led forces under a deal that signals further improvement of relations between the two major Arab countries.
The prisoner exchange deal comes less than a month after Saudi Arabia, which has had uneasy relations with Iraq's Shiite-led government, named an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time since Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait in 1990.
It also comes ahead of an Arab summit in Baghdad on March 29 which has been delayed twice by regional turmoil and acrimony between Baghdad and some Gulf states over Bahrain protests . "The agreement emanates from the strong relations between the two brotherly people and in the interest of strengthening friendship and cooperation between them," the Saudi Justice Ministry said in a statement.
It was issued after the accord was signed in Riyadh by Justice Minister Mohammad Al Eisa and his Iraqi counterpart Hassan Al Shimari.
An Iraqi Justice Ministry spokesman said the deal was part of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's efforts to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia. "The two sides agreed that this will be effective as soon as possible," spokesman Haider Al Sa'adi said.
He said the accord would affect some 38 Iraqis held in Saudi Arabia and some 62 Saudis convicted on security-related charges ranging from entering Iraq illegally to killings. Five of the Saudis had been sentenced to death and two were awaiting trial.
Deputy Justice Minister Bosho Ebrahim said that almost all of the 62 Saudis are accused of "terrorists acts".
Thousands of Saudis travelled to Iraq to fight alongside Islamist insurgents after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Official Saudi rights group statistics show that less than 100 Saudis are held in Iraq.
Under the accord, prisoners from each country will serve out the remainder of their sentences in their home countries without being eligible for pardons. Saudi media said the deal does not cover inmates facing the death penalty.