BAGHDAD — A brazen prison break in Tikrit overnight Thursday that appeared to be coordinated by al-Qaida in Iraq highlighted the deficiencies of Iraq’s security forces and raised questions about whether the country’s Sunni insurgency is gaining strength even as some of its militant fighters join the battle against the government in Syria.
A gun battle at the prison, which began Thursday night and lasted for hours, left 16 police officers dead and 102 prisoners, 47 of them linked to the al-Qaida affiliate, on the loose as daylight broke Friday. Later in the day, officials said more than 40 prisoners had been recaptured. By Friday evening, Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, was under curfew, and Iraqi special forces units flown in on helicopters from Baghdad raided nearby homes in the hunt for escapees.
Sabhan Mulla, the deputy head of the Salahaddin Provincial Council, said that the episode began when two prisoners brandished weapons — which Mulla said were most likely given to them by prison guards involved in the attack — and began shooting.
Prisoners then broke in to an armory within the prison to secure weapons. Officials said the prisoners burned some documents and photos, and took others with them as they fled, suggesting a sophisticated effort to remove themselves from official records.