Iraq: Al-Qaeda claims it freed 500 in jail breaks

Al-Qaeda suspects at Abu Ghraib in May 2010. Picture: APAl-Qaeda suspects at Abu Ghraib in May 2010. Picture: AP
Al-Qaeda suspects at Abu Ghraib in May 2010. Picture: AP
AL-Qaeda has said it organised a mass breakout of more than 500 Sunni inmates in simultaneous raids on two of Iraq’s ­prisons.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also fighting in Syria, said its fighters had stormed Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison and another 12 miles north of the capital following months of preparation.

Monday’s attacks came exactly a year after the leader of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, launched a “Breaking the Walls” campaign that made freeing its imprisoned members a top priority, the group said in a statement.

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Sunni Islamists have in recent months been regaining momentum in their insurgency against Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which came to power after the US-led 2003 invasion to remove Saddam Hussein.

The group said it had deployed suicide attackers, rockets, and 12 car bombs, killing 120 Iraqi guards and special forces in the attacks in Taji, north of Baghdad, and Abu Ghraib, the prison made notorious a decade ago by photographs showing abuse of prisoners by US soldiers. Interior ministry and medical sources said 29 police and soldiers were killed, and 36 wounded.

“In response to the call of the mujahid [holy warrior] Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to seal the blessed plan of ‘Breaking the Walls’ … the mujahideen brigades set off after months of preparation and planning to target two of the biggest prisons of the Safavid government,” read the statement posted on militant forums.

Safavid is a reference to the dynasty that ruled Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries and is used by hardline Sunnis as a derogatory term for Shiite Muslims.

Al-Qaeda also claimed responsibility in its statement for carrying out other unspecified attacks over the past four months in response to a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on 23 April. The Hawija raid killed 44 civilians and one member of the security forces, the United Nations estimated.

Sectarian tensions across the region have been inflamed by the civil war in Syria, which has drawn in Shiite and Sunni fighters from Iraq and beyond. The Shiites have aligned themselves with the Alawite regime of president Bashar al-Assad, with the Sunnis leading the rebels.

A senior Iraqi security official said its forces were on high alert and had received information that some of the most high-profile al-Qaeda operatives who managed to escape were now on their way to Syria.

Iraq has tightened border controls to prevent them crossing into Syria, said the official: “We are co-operating with the ministry of justice to get full descriptions and records of the fugitives to help recapture them and bring them back to prison.”

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The official added that the level of co-ordination of the prison raids suggested former military officers had been involved in planning, if not executing them.

Jail breaks are not unusual in Iraq, but the scale of Monday’s assaults prompted some politicians to say that the government had lost any semblance of control over security, which has been steadily deteriorating since late last year.

Insurgents have been regrouping and striking on an almost daily basis, drawing new recruits from the country’s Sunni minority, which increasingly resents Shiite domination since Saddam’s overthrow and subsequent execution.

The violence has raised fears of a return to full-blown conflict in Iraq, where ethnic Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis have yet to find a stable way of sharing power.

So far in July, almost 700 people have been killed in militant attacks, according to monitoring group Iraq Body Count.

That is still well below the height of Sunni-Shiite bloodletting that followed the US invasion, when the monthly death toll sometimes topped 3,000.

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