With apparent assistance from Iraqi prison officials, 20 al-Qaeda insurgents escaped last week from an Iraq jail. The escape follows the completion of an investigation into a series of prison breakouts of al-Qaeda terrorists from Iraqi prisons — one that has revealed widespread complicity from the highest levels of Iraq’s government.
The latest jail break occurred last week from a prison in the central Iraqi city of Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad. In the escape, a gun battle erupted in which three prisoners and three guards were reportedly killed. Moreover, most of the 20 who managed to escape were al-Qaeda prisoners, many of whom were able to walk out of the prison dressed in police uniforms.
Unfortunately, breakouts by terrorists and militants from Iraqi prisons, often aided by prison or government officials, have become all too familiar. A recent report by the Iraqi Reconciliation Society, an organization that monitors Iraq’s prison system, found that approximately 4,000 militants and terrorists have escaped detention with inside help since 2006. Moreover, as Iraq takes control of jails previously run by the US military, prison breakouts have only intensified.
For example, in January 2011 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, 12 al-Qaeda members, some sentenced to death, escaped a detention center. In that incident, like the one in Hilla, the escapees were provided police uniforms by prison guards and thus able to walk out of the compound unnoticed.
In May 2011, five members from the notorious militant Mahdi Army broke out of the Taji prison west of Baghdad as they were being transferred to another jail in the capital. Also in May, 17 al-Qaeda prisoners were killed in an attempted escape when being moved from an interrogation room on the grounds of Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, purportedly one of the most secure facilities in the country.
The January prison breakout in Basra prompted the establishment of an Iraqi parliamentary committee to investigate the Iraqi prison system. As a spokesman for Iraq’s Justice Ministry said, “Most detainees are not escaping by themselves. They are being helped to flee due to the collusion between prisons administrations and low people.”
That belief was verified in June when the committee’s report was released and found that corrupt administrators, bribery and political connections were indeed the main factors behind the continuous series of prison breakouts, many involving al-Qaeda insurgents.
However, that general finding in the report seemed to evoke little surprise among some Iraqi officials. In reference to the May escape from Taji prison, a Justice Ministry official admitted that “weak and corrupted” administrators had let a large number of detainees escape.
Another government official, who wished to remain anonymous, told an Iraqi newspaper that prison officials and staff were susceptible to “political pressure,” adding there were prisoners with political connections who were “untouchable” while in custody and who were eventually set free because of those connections.
Still, one finding of the committee did raise quite a few eyebrows when it cited complicity in the prison breakouts having reached the highest levels of the Iraqi government, in particular, senior members of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s office.
In reference to the January Basra escape, one committee member said, “There were high-level security officers connected directly to the Prime Minister’s office who were coming and going from the prison compound and who had no reason to be there because they had no formal involvement in dealing with those prisoners.”
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