Iran and Iraq released a total of 71 POWs but in the process entangled themselves in a new controversy on the first day of a program to repatriate more than 1,500 sick and wounded prisoners from the eight-year Persian Gulf war.

Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency said 49 Iraqi soldiers and three officers were flown to Baghdad aboard a DC-9 airplane Thursday after Red Cross officials concluded medical checks on the prisoners.The agency said 41 Iranian prisoners were expected to arrive in Tehran from Baghdad on the aircraft's return journey, but only 19 Iranian POWS were aboard.

Iraq said it deliberately reduced the number of Iranian prisoners of war sent to Tehran in retaliation for alleged "cheating" by Iran. An Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government had been expecting 115 Iraqi POWs to be repatriated in the initial exchange, but Iran returned only 52.

"Out of the principle of reciprocity, Iraq will hand over in this batch 19 Iranian POWs instead of 41 and will continue to pursue the same policy," said the spokesman in a dispatch by the official Iraqi News Agency monitored in Kuwait.

Tehran acknowledged returning fewer than the agreed-upon 115 Iraqi POWs but maintained that many of the Iraqis had requested political asylum.

The POW exchange is sponsored by the Red Cross and involves 1,569 sick and wounded soldiers captured during the 8-year gulf war. It is the only substantial result of U.N.-mediated peace talks between Iran and Iraq.

As signatories of the 1949 Geneva conventions, Iran and Iraq are required to to release the sick and wounded under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross without waiting for formal end to hostilities.

The Red Cross estimates 70,000 Iraqi POWs are held by Iran and that 30,000 Iranian POWs are in Iraq.