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500 Escape from Abu Ghraib and Taji Prisons in Iraq

On July 21, 2013, military-style assaults at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison and another prison in Taji resulted in the escape of more than 500 prisoners, including an unknown number of al-Qaida members. Many of the prisoners were captured or killed the same day, said Hakim al-Zamili, an Iraqi lawmaker. Authorities believe an attack on the Taji prison was a diversion intended to facilitate the escape of hundreds of prisoners from Abu Ghraib, including al-Qaida leaders who had been sentenced to death.

Abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib became a source of international outrage after photos of the maltreatment became public in 2004. The Abu Ghraib and Taji facilities were operated by American military personnel until U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011. Since then, prison escapes have been common. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.23].

One year prior to the violent July 2013 jailbreak, al-Qaida’s Iraqi arm, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, launched a campaign called “Break the Walls” to free its incarcerated members.

“The first priority in this is releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their guards,” an al-Qaida audio message stated.

The coordinated assault began when militants attacked the Taji prison with mortar rounds and explosives. A suicide car bomber rammed the facility’s main gate and another suicide bomber blew himself up nearby, starting a two-hour firefight that involved Army helicopters and resulted in several dozen deaths. The number of Taji prisoners who escaped is unknown.

Around the same time, a similar attack targeted Abu Ghraib. Insurgents fired dozens of mortar rounds and detonated suicide and car bombs; at least 29 police officers and soldiers were reportedly killed, and hundreds of prisoners escaped. A senior intelligence official said so many prisoners were able to break out because they were in the prison yard for a communal meal for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Investigators believe the insurgents had inside help, according to the Interior Ministry.


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