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Middle east

Iraq hunts escaped militants after al Qaeda prison raids

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-07-23

Some 500 militants were among the prisoners freed in simultaneous attacks on two Iraqi prisons, al Qaeda said Tuesday. The raids come as Iraq experiences a fresh wave of violence that many fear could push the country to the brink of civil war.

Al Qaeda on Tuesday claimed responsibility for two simultaneous raids on Iraqi prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad, in which it said 500 Islamic militants were set free.

The attacks on the Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons, which began late on Sunday night and carried on into Monday, are among the most brazen assaults to have been carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq and have sparked an extensive hunt for escapees by the authorities.

At least 25 members of the security forces, along with 21 prisoners and ten militants, were killed in the attacks, according to Iraqi officials.

On Tuesday, an al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said it had stormed the high-security jails after months of preparation.

The group claimed that "hundreds" of inmates, including some 500 Islamic militants, had escaped.

It cited the launch exactly a year ago by the leader of al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of a “Breaking the Walls” campaign that made freeing its imprisoned members a top priority.

“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,” said the group.

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 Shi’ite Muslims.

The group said it had deployed suicide attackers, rockets, and 12 car bombs in the attacks. It also claimed that 120 security forces were killed during the raids, contradicting the Iraqi government's figures.

‘Dark days are waiting for Iraq’

Iraq’s security forces have now begun extensive manhunts to recapture the escapees, amid concerns that the freed prisoners will soon be able to rejoin the ranks of the Islamic militants and help perpetrate a new wave of violence in the country.

"Dark days are waiting for Iraq. Some of those who escaped are senior leaders of al Qaeda, and the operation was executed for this group of leaders," a high-ranking security official told AFP.

"Those who escaped will work on committing acts of revenge, most of which might be suicide attacks," the official said.

The raids come at a time when Iraq is already facing an escalation of violence that many fear could see a return to the widespread sectarian killing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 US-led invasion.

In July alone, almost 700 people have been killed in militant attacks, according to violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count, and some politicians and commentators said the prison assaults showed the government is losing its grip on security.

"The escape of prisoners in this organised way from the biggest prisons in Iraq is another sign of the deterioration of security in Iraq in general, and Baghdad in particular," Hamid Fadhel, a political science professor at Baghdad University, told AFP.

Attacks began with inmates rioting

In what appears to have been a carefully planned operation, militants waiting outside the prisons launched their attacks after inmates inside began rioting.

The militants then attacked with mortar rounds, bombs and gunfire, sparking clashes with security forces that raged for ten hours.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry confirmed that several prisoners managed to escape during the raid on Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Baghdad’s western suburbs that was the site of well-publicised prisoner abuse at the hands of the US military.

Several Iraqi officials, including members of parliament’s security and defence committee, have said more than 500 inmates escaped. Both prisons house thousands of inmates, including convicted al Qaeda militants.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-07-23

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