A U.S. district court judge has given the Department of Defense less than two weeks to convince him to halt the public release of thousands of never-before-seen inmate photos taken inside Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison while American forces operated it.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein had initially ordered all the images relating to treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners released nearly a decade ago, but Congress blocked that release with a law permitting the defense secretary to keep any photos secret that he determined might "endanger American lives," Reuters reported this morning.

Images of U.S. soldiers subjecting Iraqi prisoners to abuse in the prison helped turned worldwide public opinion against America's waging of its war in the Middle Eastern nation. The photos currently under wraps have been sought by the ACLU since a 2004 lawsuit, in order to fully document prisoner treatment, but U.S. and Iraqi officials have long argued that their publication could incite more violence.

But much time has passed since those arguments were first made. In court on Wednesday, Hellerstein said current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had simply decided to keep all the unseen photos secret in 2012, rather than evaluating each one individually, as the law seemed to require.

"During the course of this litigation, I have reviewed some of these photographs and I know that many of these photographs are relatively innocuous while others need more serious consideration," Hellerstein said in the Wednesday ruling.

If the photos are released, the identities of their subjects will be kept secret. Hellerstein cited a comment by former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in 2009 saying that there were "nearly 2,100" such images that the DOD has never permitted to be published.

[Photo credit: AP Images]