Washington/Beirut: Hundreds of extremists were feared to be on the run in Iraq Tuesday 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, US 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 US 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 US 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 the extremist group that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent months, returning Iraq to levels of violence not seen since the 2007 surge of US troops.
The gains of the surge are 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 onwards 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, said Charles Lister of the London-based IHS Jane’s defence consultancy.
“There’s no underestimating the boost to morale,” he said. “The fact that the Islamic State has managed to secure territory of its own in northern Syria all adds to a gradual trend of increasing confidence and strength of Al Qaida in Iraq and in Syria.”
Unless recaptured, he said, those who escaped in the jailbreak will add to the pool of experienced operatives sustaining Al Qaida’s rising influence in both countries.
Extremist websites said those who were freed include foreign fighters captured by the US military in 2006 and 2007. It is likely that they would seek to join the war in Syria against President Bashar Al Assad’s government at a time when foreign fighters are flocking there from across the region.
At the Taji prison north of the capital, the attackers were beaten back after a bloody battle in which the head of the facility died.