In recent years Iraq’s prisons have witnessed several successful and attempted escapes. The most recent example was at a facility in Tikrit, Salahaddin in which over 100 inmates were able to get out. In almost every case, the guards and administration were implicated. Iraq’s penal system is simply riddled with corruption, which means these jailbreaks will continue.
On September 27, 2012, armed inmates overwhelmed the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit. The attempt began with a suicide bomber setting off a car bomb in front of the prison. Detainees were then able to get out of their cells, and broke into the facility’s weapons storeroom. It took a day’s worth of fighting before the prison was taken the following morning with Baghdad sending in special forces to help. Over two dozen inmates and members of the security forces were killed in the process. That was not before up to 120 prisoners got out, with around 40 immediately being picked up. Many of the prison’s files were destroyed as well. Some of the escapees included senior members in Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq. This was not a spontaneous prison riot, which simply got out of hand. The explosion, which set off the escape pointed to an organized operation with outside help. In fact, three more car bombs were discovered near the prison, and defused. The inmates also displayed a high level of organization such as when they destroyed the prison’s records. There was obviously advanced planning, which included militants from the province. There might have been inside help as well.
The Interior Ministry immediately blamed officials at Tasfirat for helping with the escape. The Ministry accused guards of colluding with the prisoners, and leaving sections of the facility unlocked. It also said that weapons were smuggled into the prison during family visits. Because the prison was in Salahaddin, the home province of Saddam Hussein, this could be a case of the staff being sympathetic to the insurgency. Corruption could have also played a role. Paying off staff members would have been an easy way to get their cooperation in the prison break.
The Tasfirat prison was just the latest in a series of escapes that have happened over the last three years. In 2009, 16 inmates escaped from a bathroom window at Tasfirat. In July 2010, the warden of Karkh Prison drove four high-level Al Qaeda officials out of the facility. In January 2011, 12 Al Qaeda members got out of a prison located in Basra’s Presidential Palace. Guards and the Basra intelligence unit were all suspected, but later it came to light that an official from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office might have been involved as well. That same month, a League of the Righteous commander got out of Taji Prison in Salahaddin. In May, Al Qaeda militants started a revolt at an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad in which guards provided them with weapons. That was put down before any could get out. Also in May, five Mahdi Army leaders escaped from Taji as well with guards and politicians being blamed. In April 2012, there was another escape attempt at Tasfirat, which was discovered and squashed. Finally, in July insurgents attacked a prison in Baghdad for five hours in an unsuccessful try to get their compatriots out. Iraq’s prison system obviously has major problems. First, they are not very secure as the number of successful breakouts shows. Second, almost all the attempts included inside assistance. The fact that they took place in southern, central, and northern Iraq would point to more than just support for the insurgency as being the reason. Iraq is notorious for its corruption, so bribes could have played a role. Threats to the staff might have been another means to secure their support.
The breakout at Tasfirat will not be the last time militants get out of one of Iraq’s prisons. The sophistication of the attack, and the large number of prisoners that got out did seem to be a first however. Hopefully that won’t set a precedent, but Salahaddin has seen similar well-planned attacks upon government facilities. The penal authorities also seem incapable of keeping their staff on the straight and narrow. As long as there are determined militants, and corrupt officials these escapes will remain a regular feature of the Iraqi landscape.
AK News, “Over 40 inmates arrested after Tikrit prison break,” 9/28/12
Associated Press, “Iraq’s Interior Ministry: Jailbreak in Saddam’s hometown was inside job, 20 killed,” 9/29/12
- “Al Qaeda suspects escape Iraq prison in deadly break,” 9/28/12
BBC, “Iraq militants attack Tikrit prison, freeing 90 inmates,” 9/28/12
Nabhan, Ali and Dagher, Sam, “Militants Feared Among Iraq Escapees,” Wall Street Journal, 9/28/12