Image: Iraqi checkpoint
Bassem Daham  /  AP
An Iraqi policeman holds a photocopied picture of a fugitive prisoner at a checkpoint in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Sept. 24.
updated 9/24/2009 1:50:27 PM ET 2009-09-24T17:50:27

U.S. aircraft and Iraqi patrols combined in a massive manhunt Thursday after the escape of 16 prisoners — including five al-Qaida-linked inmates awaiting execution — who apparently crawled through a bathroom window in a makeshift jail on a former compound of Saddam Hussein.

The jailbreak in Saddam's hometown Tikrit highlighted the struggles for Iraqi authorities to maintain control over an overcrowded prison system and absorb thousands of detainees turned over by U.S. forces as part of a broad security pact. At least two senior officials were fired after the late Wednesday escape.

Few details on the fugitives were provided by Iraqi security chiefs. But five were Iraqis who were sentenced to death for terrorism-related crimes and links to al-Qaida in Iraq, said a Tikrit police officer, said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation with media.

Others remain at large
The other 11 escaped convicts were jailed on charges that include kidnapping and murder, and some were awaiting sentencing, the officer said. At least one — a 19-year-old inmate — was recaptured early Thursday and the others remained at large.

A full-scale curfew was imposed on the city of 250,000 after the escape and eased before sundown on Thursday. Soldiers, however, expanded checkpoints and displayed wanted posters with photos of the fugitives. Military units also sharpened their watch on Iraq's borders — particularly the western frontier with Syria — as the dragnet widened over sparsely populated regions outside Tikrit.

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

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has recently boosted his claims that Syria continues to harbor Iraqi insurgents. On Thursday, al-Maliki said chances were "nearly hopeless" to resolve disputes with Syria over claims it is providing refuge for Saddam loyalists blamed for bombings in August that killed about 100 people in Baghdad.

Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf would not comment on the inmates' possible links to al-Qaida, saying only that some of the escaped convicts are considered "dangerous."

The breakout came about 45 minutes before midnight in one of Saddam's former palace compounds in Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad. Inmates were housed in a former school of Islamic studies, surrounded by concrete blast walls and guard towers.

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

Immediate backlash
It brought immediate backlash against top security officials and a special committee was formed to investigate the escape.

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

The director of the prison, Mohammed Salih Jbara, also was dismissed and placed in custody along with several guards and police officers, said a police spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The spokesman said the group would remain under detention until "the investigation into the escape is complete."

Under a security pact, the U.S. military plans to turn over control of its remaining detention facilities to Iraqi authorities by next year. Last week, American officials closed one of its largest detention sites, Camp Bucca near the Kuwait border.

American commanders are currently training Iraqi detention teams on inmate control techniques, such as handling riots and using non-lethal weapons such as tasers. But conditions in Iraqi prisons have been the subject of repeated condemnations from right groups, such as Amnesty International.

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.

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

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

One of the suspected assailants was detained before the gathering, the officials said. The other alleged accomplices have not been found, they said.

The officials gave no further details. Khalaf, the Interior Ministry 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 al-Maliki, who is seeking to attract supporters opposing the influence of religious Shiite parties.

Near the Iranian border, police seized a vehicle carrying 150 mines believed used to make roadside bombs, said police Maj. Aziz al- Emarah in Wasit province, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.

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