- Associated Press - Thursday, July 22, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Four al Qaeda-linked detainees have escaped from a Baghdad area prison that was handed over by the U.S. to Iraqi authorities a week ago, Iraq’s justice minister said Thursday — a daring escape that embarrasses a government struggling to prove it is capable of operating without U.S. oversight.

Dara Noureddin said the four, awaiting trial on terrorism charges, escaped from the high security prison formerly known as Camp Cropper.

The escape is the second to come to light in Iraq in about a week, and spotlights concerns about how prepared are Iraqi authorities to take full control of the country as U.S. combat forces are to be sharply scaled back by next month.

The July 15 handover by U.S. forces of the prison that once held Saddam Hussein and other senior members of his regime marked a milestone for Iraq’s push to regain full sovereignty. It offered a new measure of pride in a nation where bombings and assassinations are still common and the formation of a new government has been stymied by politicians jostling for power since a March 7 parliamentary election.

Mr. Noureddin did not identify the men who escaped, but said they had been arrested by U.S. forces following a clash with the men in 2008 in western Iraq.

The U.S. military did not respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment.

Two Iraqi intelligence officials and a third in the Interior Ministry who are knowledgeable about the case said authorities believe the four men — whom they identified as al Qaeda members — were aided by the prison official in charge of their block.

The intelligence officials said the four were discovered missing Tuesday during an evening roll call. When prison staff went to inform the unit head, they found that he, too, was missing. He has not reported for work since, the officials said.

The intelligence officials said one of the escaped inmates is believed to be a senior member of the group, and had the title of finance minister of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group.

One intelligence official said the four men were officially listed in a security report as Mohammed Hamid, Qais Azmi, Malik Nazzal and Hussein Ahmed.

He did not have their noms de guerre, however. Most militants take on other names.

All three officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the details of the investigation to the media.

The U.S. forces handed over about 1,500 prisoners to Iraqi authorities during the changing of the guard at Camp Cropper, but continue to hold 200 detainees at the request of the Iraqi government. They are kept in a separate part of the prison dubbed Compound 5.

Just before the prison’s handover, Iraqi officials announced that U.S. forces had transferred dozens of members of Saddam’s toppled regime to their custody. Included in the list was Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s former foreign minister who became the international face of Saddam’s policies.

The intelligence officials said Iraqi authorities have removed many of the officials who headed units in the prison, fearing other escapes.

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