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The guard, however, believes that the corruption that allowed such a disaster reaches much higher up the Iraqi political system. “We are under the impression that some elements from the government and the security troops helped the gunmen,” the guard said. “How could so many prisoners disappear within minutes after they left the prison?”
For al-Qaida, the political infighting was icing on the cake of an immensely successful operation. The terror group boasted about the operation in a lengthy statement, bragging that it had “freed the lions” from the “Safaween,” or Safavids, a derogatory term for Shiites.
The guards were stunned at the brutality of the assault. One guard pretended to be dead, lying in a pile of his fellow guards’ corpses. An al-Qaida fighter was checking the bodies for the living, executing anyone who was still breathing. The guard, who had been shot in the leg, covered himself in blood. A fighter tried to kick his body over, but gave up and moved on. “Thank God, I am still alive,” the guard said.
Another guard recalled watching a colleague call out to the shooters: “I am from Abu Ghraib, my name is Othman Omar,” a Sunni name. The gunmen assured him he would be safe if he came out, since he belonged to their sect - when he approached, they shot him dead. Gunmen held one policeman at gunpoint and took his pistol and badge, telling another fighter, “We can use this.” Al-Qaida claims they killed more than 100 security forces in the raid; official Iraqi government figures put the number at 10.
The Abu Ghraib prison break may be over, but its effects will reverberate around Iraq and the broader region for many months to come. The men who carried it out are still on the loose, ready to carry out more bombings, stronger than ever. The guards, meanwhile, marveled at the jihadists’ confidence and cool.
“They seemed not to be in a rush, they were doing what they wanted, with no confusion,” one guard said. “They knew what to do.”
Raheem Salman is a correspondent with Reuters in Baghdad and a former staffer with the Los Angeles Times. Ned Parker is the former Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and the 2011-2012 Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.