Inmates of an Iraqi prison outside Baghdad mounted a bloody escape Friday, officials said, leaving behind more than 30 dead prisoners and police in what Islamic State militants claimed was a coordinated operation.
The convicts in Al-Khalis prison, about 33 miles northeast of the Iraqi capital city, reportedly commandeered a weapons cache while Islamic State fighters outside detonated 15 explosive devices against government forces stationed nearby, according to an Islamic State statement issued Saturday. The Sunni militants claimed that “more than 30 knights of the Islamic State” were able to escape in an ensuing shoot-out, killing “dozens” of prison guards in their path.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, confirmed Saturday that approximately 40 inmates had escaped, but said that only seven were in prison for terrorism-related crimes. In an interview with local broadcaster Al-Sumariyah News, Maan put the death toll on the government side at five, and that 30 prisoners had been killed. He also disputed the Islamic State claim of a coordinated escape plan.
“The [escape] attempt occurred when an inmate took the weapon of one of the policemen distributing water on the prisoners,” said Maan. “He then shot the [policeman] and others and commandeered other weapons inside.” Local news outlets reported a curfew had been put in place in the wake of the breakout, while security forces raced to establish a security perimeter in the area, north of Baquba in Diyala province.
Iraqi prisons, packed with Sunni fighters held on terrorism charges, have often been the target of coordinated attacks by the Sunni insurgency fighting to wrest control of the country from its Shiite-dominated central government.
The fighting has grown intense since Islamic State militants swept aside government security forces to seize control of large swaths of northern Iraq last year. Although the government, bolstered by U.S.-led air warfare and Shiite militias, has managed to push back Islamic State in some areas, the group has proven resilient, mounting suicide bomb attacks as well as more complex operations.
Hisham Al-Hashimi, a security expert based in Baghdad, said Saturday on his official Facebook page that the total of escaped prisoners has exceeded the 1,500 mark, adding that many prisons are not secure and that most surveillance cameras inoperative. He condemned the negligence of the guards in Al-Khalis prison as an “unforgivable security lapse,” adding that the police assigned there have not been trained adequately.
Elsewhere in Iraq, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a Baghdad bombing that killed seven Shiite pilgrims days before their visit to the shrine of Imam Al-Kathem, an important religious figure for Shiites and a perennial target for the insurgents. The government has declared it will deploy security forces to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.
Bulos is a special correspondent.