Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Corruption at the top

Suspicions of corruption are growing as a result of a rash of recent jailbreaks in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

Click to view caption
Iraqi security personnel stand at the site of a bomb attack in Kut, southeast of Baghdad (photo: Reuters)

A prison break in which dozens of convicted terrorists escaped last week has triggered derision from Iraqis and accusations of impotence, negligence and corruption on the part of Iraqi officials, including top aides to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

Three days after the jailbreak terrorists struck with a wave of car bombs and a shooting in six different Iraqi cities on Sunday, killing at least 30 people and wounding 42, a stark reminder that instability still looms large over Iraq nearly a year after the US troop withdrawal.

In the prison break, dozens of inmates, including convicted members of Al-Qaeda, fled from a prison in Tikrit, hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, reportedly using weapons smuggled in during family visits.

According to different accounts, the prison was attacked by gunmen dressed in police uniforms late on Thursday after a car bomb exploded outside the gates. Inmates took control of the prison after killing 16 guards in the onslaught.

Security forces sent from Baghdad managed to regain control of the jail early on Friday, but the Iraqi Interior Ministry said 74 prisoners were still on the run, including leading members of Al-Qaeda who had been sentenced to death.

The ministry confirmed that there was evidence of complicity in the operation among security elements in the jail and that planning and coordination had preceded it.

The prison compound, which holds some 300 inmates, had gone uninspected for long periods, allowing inmates to hoard arms. The escapees had also destroyed prison records before fleeing, making it difficult to identify those who had escaped.

Opponents of the government quickly sensed an opportunity to go on the attack as a result of what they regard as its faltering reaction to repeated jailbreaks and the failure of the security forces to police the violence-torn nation.

The main Sunni bloc Iraqiya held Al-Maliki, in charge of the armed forces, responsibile for the escape. It also demanded bringing security officials in charge of the prisons to account. "There are many unanswered questions that need clear and honest replies," Iraqiya said in a statement.

Former interior minister Jawad Al-Bulani ridiculed the security officials for "making Iraq score an international record for jailbreaks." Former national security minister Shirwan Al-Waeili also accused security officials of incompetence. "They should be replaced by efficient people," he said.

The issue is particularly sensitive for Al-Maliki, since he has made his government's determination to beat terrorism a central plank of his efforts to restore stability following the US withdrawal. Any suggestion that groups linked to Al-Qaeda were gaining ground in Iraq would be a blow to his efforts for re-election in 2014.

Al-Maliki holds numerous important ministerial portfolios including interior minister, intelligence chief and commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, allowing him to oversee the army.

He has kept his silence about the brazen prison break, but the Interior Ministry said it had fired Major-General Abdel-Karim Al-Khazraji, the police chief of the Salaheddin province where the jailbreak occurred. It also announced a financial reward for information leading to the arrest of the fugitives.

Prison breaks have become common in Iraq. In January 2005 when the jails were still under US control, 28 prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison escaped from custody while being transported to another facility in Baghdad.

The Tikrit prison itself was moved to a different location after 16 prisoners, including five Al-Qaeda-linked inmates awaiting execution, made their escape through a prison bathroom window in September 2009.

In the southern city of Basra, a dozen detainees held on terrorism charges broke out of a high-security prison in 2010 disguised in police uniforms. Speaker of the Iraqi parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi announced at the time that top security officials had been involved in the escape.

In July 2011, detainees linked to Al-Qaeda escaped at least twice from a Baghdad area prison known as Camp Cropper shortly after the US handed it over to the Iraqi authorities.

Two months later, 35 prisoners facing terrorism charges escaped via a sewage pipe from a temporary jail in the city of Mosul, an Al-Qaeda stronghold. Al-Qaeda had apparently smuggled weapons and grenades into the Mosul prison, supposedly one of the country's most secure detention centres.

In August this year, militants stormed a police counter-terrorism headquarters in Baghdad in an attempt to free Al-Qaeda prisoners. All five attackers were killed in a long gun battle. A few days later, four prisoners and a guard were killed in clashes at a prison in the central Iraqi city of Hilla, during which eight inmates escaped.

Also in August, a group of Al-Qaeda prisoners was caught trying to tunnel out of the Abu Ghraib prison.

In July, the Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq said that it was launching a new campaign aimed at helping its prisoners break out of jails.

The jailbreaks have not been confined only to Sunni convicts or suspects. Fifty members of the Mahdi Army, Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's militia, managed to escape from jail in Hilla in 2006.

In addition to the prisons, targets in recent months have included police stations, military bases and an entrance to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.

By announcing that the escape had help from inside, the government has acknowledged that corrupt officials are involved in the jailbreaks, raising new concerns over the country's security and justice systems.

The Ministry of Justice, responsible for executions, has accused the local government in the Salaheddin province of blocking the transfer of 40 convicts in the prison who were scheduled to be executed in Baghdad.

Corruption is rampant in Iraq, and one of the most corrupt organs of the state apparatus is the security force.

On 16 January, the UK Guardian newspaper published horrifying accounts of police corruption in Iraq, where the families of innocent detainees face extortion from corrupt officials.

The paper quoted an unidentified colonel in the Interior Ministry as detailing how the country's endemic corruption had resulted in an "industrial scale of extortion of innocent detainees and their families."

"Everything is for sale, every post in the government is for sale," he said. According to his account, Al-Qaeda fighters sometimes pay as much as half a million dollars to be let go.

The Iraqi Anti-corruption Group, an NGO, reported on its blog last week that a high-ranking official at the ministry of the interior was running a network that facilitated the escape of prisoners from wealthy Arab countries for money.

The group reported that the official, known to be a close aide to Al-Maliki and a senior member of his Daawa Party, was behind the escape of several Saudi prisoners after he had received huge bribes through an intermediary outside Iraq.

Iraqi media outlets thrive on reports of corruption in the Interior Ministry and about its politicised and sectarian-based police force. There is no way to confirm these reports, and the government usually does not comment on specific cases.

Nevertheless, the arguments raised against the government's failure to secure the prisons are now getting wide publicity. Critics argue that the routine escapes are turning Iraq's judicial system into a travesty. How, they ask, can people trust the criminal-justice system when the police are so riddled with corruption?

"Terror will not end as long as there are corrupt security leaders who sell their honour for dollars," wrote the Baghdad newspaper Al-Bayana Al-Jadida on Saturday.

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