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Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison as seen in 2009. On Sunday, militants staged an audacious raid at this and another high-security prison.

Karim Kadim, • Associated Press file photo,

Al-Qaida takes credit for brazen jailbreaks in Iraq

  • Article by: Jabbar Yaseen and Liz Sly
  • Washington Post
  • July 23, 2013 - 7:53 PM

– Iraq’s Al-Qaida affiliate claimed responsibility Tuesday for a jailbreak from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison that unleashed hundreds of militants into an already unstable region and boosted the group’s resurgent fortunes in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said in a statement that hundreds of prisoners were freed late Sunday in two coordinated assaults in which fighters used suicide bombs and mortars to storm the two top security prisons on Baghdad’s outskirts at Abu Ghraib and Taji. Both were once run by the U.S. military and housed the country’s most senior ­Al-Qaida detainees.

At least 26 members of the Iraqi security forces and more than a dozen prisoners were killed as the insurgents battled to breach the prison walls, Iraqi officials said. At Abu Ghraib, the attackers were apparently successful, and Iraq’s Interior Ministry said all the escapees came from that facility. The assailants were helped at both prisons, the ministry said, by “collusion” from guards inside.

The Iraqi government has not confirmed how many prisoners were set free, and officials said they are still trying to count those who got away. In Washington, U.S. officials put the number of escapees at between 500 and 600, ­including a significant number of Al-Qaida operatives.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said that the inmates freed in the raid included “over 500 jihadis … who were trained by war and prepared by ­battle.” They have been “taken to secure locations away from the enemy,” the statement added.

The Iraqi security forces were still hunting for fugitives Tuesday, and at least some were recaptured in the dragnet, the government said. Reports in the Iraqi media said the ­families of security force members and those who fought Al-Qaida alongside U.S. troops were fleeing areas in western Iraq, fearing revenge attacks from escaped militants.

The scale of the attacks against the heavily guarded facilities reinforced an impression building 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.

The jailbreak coincided with a relentless wave of bombings blamed on Al-Qaida. The bombings have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in recent months, bringing back levels of violence not seen since the U.S. troop surge in 2007 in a bid to reverse the bloodshed and to assert Iraqi government control.

The gains of the surge are now in jeopardy, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who monitors extremist activity in Iraq and Syria.

“This is a significant milestone in the resurgence of Al-Qaida in Iraq,” he said. “A good deal of the progress achieved from 2006 onward has essentially been undone now.”

The operation will also help accelerate the group’s ascendancy in Syria, where it has been rapidly expanding at the expense of more-moderate rebel groups.

© 2014 Star Tribune