BAGHDAD: Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq claimed responsibility Tuesday for audacious raids on two high-security prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad this week that killed dozens and set free hundreds of inmates, including some of its followers.
The statement issued in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, was posted on an online jihadist forum. It said months of planning went into the highly coordinated assaults on the prisons in Abu Ghraib and Taji that began late Sunday.
The attacks, among the most stunning in Iraq since a surge in violence began in April, have provoked sharp criticism from opposition lawmakers of the government’s efforts to keep the country safe.
The spike in bloodshed is intensifying fears of a return to the widespread sectarian killing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In its statement, Al-Qaeda in Iraq dubbed the prison operation “Conquering the Tyrants,” and described it as “a bold raid blessed by God” that followed a series of earlier attacks that “shook the pillars of the Safavid project” – a reference to what some Sunnis see as undue Iranian influence over Iraq.
It said the operation involved 12 car bombs, military-style barrages of rockets and missiles, suicide bombers and help from prisoners who had managed to obtain weapons on the inside.
Iraqi officials have said at least 25 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed in the attacks, along with at least 21 prisoners and 10 militants.
Al-Qaeda’s statement provided a different tally. It said its men killed more than 120 government forces, and that on Al-Qaeda’s side only the suicide bombers died in the clashes that raged for hours.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry has said several prisoners managed to escape during the raid on Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Baghdad’s western suburbs that was the site of well-publicized prisoner abuse at the hands of the U.S. military following the 2003 invasion.
Several Iraqi officials, including members of parliament’s security and defense committee, have said more than 500 inmates escaped. Both prisons house thousands of inmates, including convicted Al-Qaeda militants.
Al-Qaeda said in its statement that the attack freed hundreds of detainees, including more than 500 mujahideen, or holy warriors.
Iraqi authorities locked down areas around the prison Monday as they carried out manhunts for the attackers and any prisoners who escaped.
Al-Qaeda also claimed responsibility in its statement for carrying out other unspecified attacks over the past four months in response to a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23.
The Hawija raid killed 44 civilians and one member of the security forces, according to estimates by the U.N. It followed months of rallies by Iraq’s Sunnis against the government over what they contend is second-class treatment and the unfair use of tough anti-terrorism measures against their sect.
Violence in Iraq has spiked to the highest level in half a decade in the wake of the Hawija crackdown. More than 3,000 people have been killed since the start of April, including more than 500 since the start of July.
The bloodshed continued early Tuesday when insurgents bombed a local government building in the village of al-Rashad, which is outside the ethically disputed northern city of Kirkuk.
The attackers kidnapped two anti-Al-Qaeda Sunni militiamen who were guarding the building and later shot them dead, according to Rashad Mayor Lious al-Fandi.