Al Qaeda’s brazen prison break at Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison on Sunday was a major victory for the terrorists and a blow to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The attack at Abu Ghraib cut loose at least 250 militants, Iraqi officials said. Although al Qaeda claimed 500 militants were freed from their cells.
Those militants are now free to join in the growing sectarian violence in Iraq, and the success of the attacks could become a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda itself.
On Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a coalition of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq, claimed responsibility for the raid on Abu Ghraib.
The group also said it was behind a second, almost simultaneous assault on Taji Jail to the north of the capital. But Iraqi authorities said those attackers had been fought off with a couple of helicopters.
The bold prison break, carried out Monday with car bombs blasting open gates and suicide bombers rushing inside, puts more fighters on the ground as an insurgency against Maliki’s government gains momentum.
Indeed, insurgents have been regrouping on an almost daily basis, drawing recruits from the country’s Sunni minority who resent the Shiite government, which has sometime used violence to put down demonstrations.
For his part, Maliki accused militias affiliated with his rival, the anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is also Shiite, of complicity in the prison break.
"What happened in Abu Ghraib prison was the guards who were inside the prison, are connected to these militias, and it was they who colluded and it was they who opened the doors," he said on state television.
The assaults come after a violent 10 days in the country, which has seen 250 killed by car bombs, ambushes and gun fights, according to violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count. So far in July, almost 700 people have been killed in militant attacks, the group said.
That’s well below the thousands killed monthly during the height of sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Still, the apparent success of the prison breaks – few escapees have been captured – could make Al Qaeda an even greater force to be reckoned with, W. Andrew Terrill, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Army War College, told NBC News.
“It’s absolutely possible this could invigorate Al Qaeda,” Terrill said. “They could be seen as the ones doing something about oppression of Sunnis from the Shiite government, so it could be a good recruitment tool.”
And the freeing of the militants adds to fear the country is in the midst of another civil war. Indeed Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis have yet to find a stable way to share power.
That could raise more questions about the blood spilled – nearly 4,500 American lives – and the trillion dollars spent to bring stability to the oil-rich country.
After Saddam Hussein’s fall, Abu Ghraib held U.S. detainees and became infamous for graphic photographs of prisoner abuse and humiliation.
It seems nothing good comes out of Abu Ghraib.
Jeff Black of NBC News and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published July 23 2013, 6:15 PM