Four Iraqis escape from prison at Baghdad airport compound

Four Islamic extremists escaped from a prison in the Baghdad airport compound that the U.S. military had handed over to the Iraqi government with great fanfare last week, state television reported Thursday.

The escape from under the noses of Iraqi and U.S. military forces was sure to raise questions about the competence and loyalties of officials running the prison system as the number of American troops falls to 50,000 by the end of next month.

The detainees who escaped included men who served as de facto finance and interior ministers for the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant umbrella group dominated by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the report said. None were identified by name.

Iraqis familiar with the investigation said officials were trying to determine whether the warden, Omar Khames, had driven the men out of the prison in his car. The television report quoted a Justice Ministry source as saying that American officials had pressured the ministry to accept Khames as warden.

The U.S. military referred requests for comment to the Iraqi government. But the escape from a jail in the Baghdad airport compound, which is dotted with dozens of checkpoints and home to the headquarters of the U.S. military, was stunning.

Karkh Prison, formerly known as Camp Cropper, was transferred to the Justice Ministry last week. It holds 1,500 detainees, including at least eight prominent officials of the Saddam Hussein regime and members of extremist groups.

The reputation of prisons and detention facilities run by Iraqis has been tarnished by jail breaks, corruption and cases of detainee abuse.

The U.S. military lavishly praised Iraqi authorities in a ceremony last week. Major Gen. Jerry Cannon handed a giant key to Justice Minister Dara Noureddine and called the day “a major milestone along the democratic journey of self-determination and reliance for the government of Iraq.”

Despite the transfer, the U.S. military continues to hold a block of 200 prisoners for the Iraqi government. The American block at Karkh holds the eight senior figures of the Hussein regime, all of whom are said to be on death row, including his two half-brothers and a former defense minister.

Elsewhere, rocket fire in Baghdad’s Green Zone killed two Ugandan and one Peruvian security guard contracted by the U.S. government, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. Fifteen people were injured, including two Americans, it said.

After a relatively quiet period, the Green Zone, site of embassies and Iraqi government offices, has been hit almost daily in the last month by single rockets or mortar rounds.

Last week, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups were planning to attack American bases with rockets and mortar shells.

Redha is a Times staff writer.