More than 100 prison officials and guards have been detained after 16 prisoners, including five al-Qaida-linked inmates awaiting execution, made a stunning jailbreak in Saddam Hussein's hometown, a police commander said on Friday.
The escape from the makeshift prison in Tikrit was the latest in a string of embarrassing security lapses in Iraq, raising questions about the country's ability to ensure its own security ahead of a planned US withdrawal at the end of 2011.
The entire staff of the jail, including the provincial prison director, have been detained for questioning as part of the investigation into the escape, said police Lt Col Ahmed al-Fahal, the director of the anti-riot department for Salahuddin province. Al-Fahal said that six of the escaped convicts, including three of the al-Qaida linked inmates, had been arrested by late Friday. Security forces continued the manhunt for the remaining fugitives, with the help of US aerial surveillance.
Iraq's government, police and military have been under intense scrutiny since the pull back of American troops from Iraq's cities nearly three months ago as part of a security pact that outlines the US withdrawal.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has built his January re-election campaign on improved security, has been eager to show Iraq can plug any gaps since the US pullback.
But a series of high-profile attacks, including suicide truck bombings last month that targeted the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad, raised questions about the readiness of Iraq's forces. The prison escape Wednesday came just before midnight at a jail located on the grounds of one of Saddam's former palaces in Tikrit, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Authorities said the prisoners pried open a bathroom window with a pipe wrench to escape, and al-Fahal blamed the jailbreak on the bathroom window's shoddy construction.
Al-Fahal said that no one at the prison appeared to have actively aided in the escape, but stressed that "certainly there was great negligence by the guards."
The jailbreak triggered an immediate backlash in Tikrit against top security officials and a special committee was formed to investigate the escape.
Provincial authorities fired Col Mohammed Saleh al-Jubouri, the head of the anti-terrorism department for Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located. Al-Jubouri, who also is the director of the prison, has been detained for questioning, al-Fahal said. A curfew was lifted on Friday morning in Tikrit, though the number of police checkpoints was increased overnight.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities were examining how a controlled explosion of weapons confiscated by the Iraqi military went awry on Friday, killing 15 soldiers, Iraqi and US military officials said. The blast took place in an area where American and Iraqi forces routinely carry out controlled explosions to destroy weapons seized during raids in and around the northern city of Mosul, which the US military has called the last stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The blast occurred while the soldiers were preparing the materials for detonation just east of Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of Baghdad, two military officials said. An Iraqi military official said at least 15 soldiers were killed in the blast. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. Army Maj. Derrick Cheng, a US military spokesman, said the 15 Iraqi soldiers were conducting a controlled explosion of a car bomb and other weaponry when it "accidentally detonated."