Hundreds of extremists were feared to be on the run in Iraq on Monday after al-Qaida’s affiliate in the country launched a major assault on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, offering a fresh boost to the group’s resurgent fortunes in Iraq and in Syria.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that an unspecified number of prisoners had escaped from Abu Ghraib but none from a second facility that also came under assault. In Washington, U.S. officials closely monitoring the jailbreak said the number of escapees was thought to be 500 to 600, including a significant number of al-Qaida operatives.
Members of the Iraqi parliament who said they had been briefed by security officials asserted that the escapees included some top “emirs,” or leaders, of the al-Qaida in Iraq franchise, many of whom had been captured by U.S. troops.
Iraq’s security forces set up checkpoints on highways leading west to Syria and Jordan and around Baghdad’s airport to snare fugitives. At least some prisoners were recaptured in the dragnet, according to Iraqi news media reports.
But even if the prisoners are recaptured, the scale of the attacks on the heavily guarded facilities reinforced an impression among many Iraqis that their security forces are struggling to cope with a resurgent al-Qaida since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, taking with them much of the expertise and technology that had been used to hold extremists at bay.
There was no formal assertion of responsibility for the Sunday night assaults on the prisons, but they bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and many extremist websites identified the attacks as the work of the al-Qaida-affiliated group.