- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — Five al-Qaida-linked prisoners awaiting execution and 11 other inmates broke out of a prison in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, prompting a massive manhunt Thursday, officials said.

A complete curfew was imposed on the city of 250,000 after the prisoners escaped at around 11:15 p.m. Wednesday. Checkpoints have been set up throughout the city and at roads leading out, a Tikrit police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation with media.

At the request of local authorities, the U.S. military in the area provided search dogs and aerial surveillance to help in the search, spokesman Maj. Derrick Cheng said.

The prisoners were being held on charges including terrorism, kidnapping and murder, and the majority have links to al-Qaida in Iraq, the police officer said.

Some are still awaiting sentencing, but five were slated for execution on terrorism convictions, the officer said. One of the five was recaptured early Thursday in the Tikrit area — a 19-year-old from a town near the city.

Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf would not comment on the inmates’ possible links to al-Qaida, saying only that six of the escaped convicts are considered “dangerous.”

The police officer said authorities found a pipe wrench in a bathroom in the prison yard, which the inmates apparently used to open a ventilation window.

Khalaf would give no details on the prisoners or how they escaped, but said authorities were distributing wanted posters with photos of the fugitives in the city, which is about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

Extra surveillance has also been ordered at Iraq’s borders and throughout the northwest of the country, Khalaf said.

Provincial authorities fired Col. Mohammed Saleh Jubara, the head of the anti-terrorism department for Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located, the police officer said. The anti-terrorism department is responsible for the security of prisoners being held on terrorism related charges.

Provincial spokeswoman Fatin Abdul-Qadir said in a statement that a committee had been formed to investigate how the 16 prisoners escaped and whether they had any help getting the wrench into the prison. She did not comment on Jubara’s firing, but state television said it was related to the prison break.

The facility from which the inmates escaped was a makeshift prison, built on the compound of one of Saddam’s former palaces. Inmates were housed in a former school of Islamic studies, surrounded by tall concrete blast walls and guard towers.

Iraq’s overcrowded prison and judicial systems are struggling to handle the thousands of detainees being handed over to Iraqi authorities this year by the U.S. military under the requirements of a security pact between the two countries.

International human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have said conditions inside Iraqi prisons are appalling.

Earlier this month, inmates at Abu Ghraib prison rioted for two days to demand better conditions and the replacement of prison staff they accuse of mistreatment. The prison, where abuses by U.S. troops helped fuel anti-American sentiment in Iraq, has been handed back to Iraqi control and reopened in February.

In other developments, Iraq’s largest Shiite political party has boosted security around its leader after foiling a suspected assassination plot earlier this week, senior officials in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, said the group’s security agents received a tip that three attackers planned to smuggle explosives hidden in cigarette packs into an event Monday led by Ammar al-Hakim, who took over the Supreme Council after the death of his father last month.

One of the suspected assailants was detained before the gathering in Baghdad to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the officials said. The other alleged accomplices have not been found, they said.

The officials gave no further details. Khalaf, the army’s military spokesman, declined to comment.

Al-Hakim is struggling to keep the powerful Supreme Council from splintering before parliamentary elections scheduled for January. The group has tried to bolster its base with an alliance that includes anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But the party is faces a stiff challenge from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seeking to attract supporters opposing the influence of religious Shiite parties.

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