BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said Saturday that a jailbreak where al-Qaida-linked militants escaped death row had help from inside, further tarnishing state authority and raising new concerns over corruption.
A day after the escape in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, scores of prisoners are still at large.
The Interior Ministry said there had been “clear collusion” between some guards and inmates in the Tasfirat prison. Weapons were brought in during family visits, and wardens left locks inside the facility open.
“The cells were not searched for a long period, which indicates more deliberate negligence that led to this incident,” the ministry said in a statement released late Friday.
The escape occurred after a riot and firefight that left 20 dead, including 16 inmates and four guards, the statement said. After taking over a large part of the prison, rioters used other inmates as human shields in order to make their way out, it added. Of a total 303 prisoners, 102 escaped, including 47 al-Qaida-linked inmates awaiting execution. Some 23 were recaptured.
On Saturday, state television announced a reward for information leading to the arrest of the fugitives, and a curfew remained in force until the afternoon. Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Assi said “security forces have intensified efforts to hunt down those still on the run.”
He refused to say how much the reward is for.
The incident generated sharp criticism for Iraqi security forces, who have been unable to stabilize the country almost a year after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Several smaller escapes and attempted jailbreaks have already deeply embarrassed the government, which is eager to demonstrate it can run its justice and detention systems.
The Interior Ministry statement also said that Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim al-Khazraji, the police chief of Salahuddin province where the jailbreak occurred, was fired.
Iraq has a poor track record of keeping inmates behind bars.
The Tikrit prison itself was moved to a different location after 16 prisoners, including five al-Qaida-linked inmates awaiting execution, made their escape after prying open the bars on a prison bathroom window with a pipe wrench in September 2009.
At the time, the entire prison staff and the provincial prison official were detained for questioning. Six of the escaped inmates were later captured.
And in southern city of Basra, a dozen detainees held on terrorism charges broke out of a prison in 2010, disguised in police uniforms. And last year, al-Qaida smuggled weapons and grenades into a prison in Mosul, supposedly one of the country’s most secure detention centers, and attempted an ultimately unsuccessful jailbreak that left 17 dead.
In July 2011, detainees linked to al-Qaida escaped at least twice from a Baghdad area prison known as Camp Cropper shortly after the U.S. handed it over to Iraqi authorities.
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