Notorious Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, along with another Baghdad jail, were attacked Sunday evening in a well-coordinated, military style assault. During the attacks, a number of prisoners – including al-Qaeda commanders – managed to escape. According to a BBC News report, the jails came under mortar fire, before cars packed with explosives were used to attack the gates.
Fighting raged for several hours, following the attacks and it is reported that 20 members of Iraq’s security forces were killed.
Initially, the government of Iraq denied that any prisoners escaped, but later admitted that there had, indeed, been “some” escapes. Hakim Al-Zamili, an Iraqi politician, told the Reuters news agency that about 500 prisoners had escaped Abu Ghraib. “It’s obviously a terrorist attack carried out by al-Qaeda to free convicted terrorists with al-Qaeda,” he said. He described some of those who escaped as senior al-Qaeda members who were awaiting execution.
Abu Ghraib, to the west of Baghdad, was known as a place where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would have opponents of his regime detained and tortured. In 2004, it was the center of a major scandal, involving US prison guards, when photographs emerged of detainees being subjected to humiliation and abuse.
The other prison, Taji, also came under heavy attack. Wissam al-Firaiji, Iraq’s interior minister, described the attackers as well-armed terrorists. “The attack against Taji jail alone was carried out by nine suicide bombers and three car bombs driven by suicide bombers,” the minister told reporters. He went on to say that more than 100 mortar rounds were lobbed at the prison during the assault. As of Monday morning, the situation is said to be under control.
Iraq is rapidly descending into chaos as an increasing wave of attacks and suicide bombings sweep the country. Iraqi security forces seem completely unable to cope with the growing unrest. The country’s Sunni majority is ruled by a mainly Shia government. The terrorist network known as al-Qaeda appears to have taking an increasingly active role in the insurgency against Iraq’s government. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, more than 200 people have been killed in Iraq since the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of prayer and fasting. Some 2,500 have been killed by the violence since April.
In addition to the intensifying of violence within Iraq, there is evidence that Iraqi fighters – and American weapons – have been streaming into neighboring Syria, where President Bashar-al-Assad continues to battle a Sunni insurgency. Although there is little doubt that the increase in violence in Iraq has been facilitated by the withdrawal of American troops, the virtual civil war is part of the larger battle within the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia, which has been ignited by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
In total, more than 65 people died in attacks across the Iraqi capital over the weekend. The prison attacks, however, demonstrated how capable the insurgents have become at employing military style tactics to launch large-scale assaults. The escape of senior al-Qaeda figures during the attack on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons represents a major victory for the insurgents.
Graham J Noble