As many as 500 convicts have broken out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, including high-ranking members of al Qaeda, in what Reuters describes as a “military-style assault” to free them.
Reuters reports that suicide bombers crashed cars loaded with explosives into the infamous prison’s gates on Sunday night, while other militants armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched an assault on Abu Ghraib’s guards. The attack lasted until early Monday morning, and by the time Iraqi military helicopters arrived on the scene to beat back the militants, some 500 inmates had managed to escape with the al Qaeda attackers.
The Associated Press reports that “dozens” of people were killed in the attack on Sunday night, including at least 25 members of the Iraqi security forces.
"The number of escaped inmates has reached 500; most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences," Hakim Al-Zamili, a senior member of the security and defense committee in parliament, told Reuters. "The security forces arrested some of them, but the rest are still free."
Officials at Abu Ghraib are certain that the attack was carried out by al Qaeda operatives as a coordinated breakout plan.
"It's obviously a terrorist attack carried out by al Qaeda to free convicted terrorists with al Qaeda,” one official told Reuters under the guise of anonymity.
A simultaneous attack occurred at a nearby prison in Taji, but authorities there managed to prevent any inmates from escaping. Sixteen soldiers and six militants were killed during that attack.
Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons house several thousand prisoners, including many convicted al Qaeda members. These attacks are only a small part of a recent spike in violence by the Sunni al Qaeda against the Shi'ite-dominated government. Some 3,000 people have been killed in Iraq since April.
At the time of the attack, prisoners were gathered en masse at an open-air Iftar feast, the traditional meal breaking the daylong fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. When the gates were opened, the prisoners were easily able to escape as they were not confined to their cells. An investigation has reportedly been launched to determine who authorized the open-air meal.