BAGHDAD — The accused mastermind of a Baghdad church siege that killed dozens last fall nearly escaped from prison Sunday after wresting a gun from a guard and launching an hours-long assault that left 17 people dead, including a top Iraqi counterterrorism official.
None of the prisoners — all suspected members of al-Qaida in Iraq — managed to break out of the heavily fortified Interior Ministry headquarters in eastern Baghdad. Ringleader Abu Huthaifa al-Battawi, who allegedly led the October attack on the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral that left 68 dead and stunned the nation, was shot and killed as he tried to flee in a car.
The midnight melee at what is supposed to be one of country's most secure jails heightens doubt about whether Iraqi forces are ready to protect the nation as U.S. troops prepare to leave by December.
"Where are the authorities? There is no government," shouted Dhia Raheema al-Taiee, nephew of the slain counterterror chief, Brig. Gen. Muaeid Mohammed Saleh. "He was in a secure compound, and he is a high rank, and yet he was killed so easily at the hands of prisoners who were able to obtain weapons," Taiee said at his uncle's funeral Sunday afternoon.
Nearby, police officers fired handguns and rifles into the air in a show of grief and anger. Six police officers and 11 detainees were killed in the attempted jailbreak, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's top military spokesman.
Moussawi and two Interior Ministry officials described a dramatic blitz by Battawi as he and up to 24 other prisoners were being taken from their cells to interrogation rooms.
Usually, guards unshackle prisoners as they are being interrogated, but Moussawi said the al-Qaida suspects should have been restrained since they are considered a top terror threat.
Battawi's hands had just been unbound when he wrested a gun from a guard, killed him and freed his fellow prisoners. Another inmate then charged into a different room, killing a second guard and taking his weapon.
Other prisoners joined the fight, seizing an assault rifle and three other guns. Inmates also obtained grenades, said Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament's security and defense committee.
The prisoners then entered Saleh's office and shot him, along with another officer who was in the room. Saleh oversaw counterterrorism missions and battled organized crime in eastern Baghdad.
At one point, Battawi and four inmates jumped into a car on the compound and fled toward an exit gate but were shot and killed by a guard before they could escape, Zamili said.
The brawl, which began around 10 p.m. Saturday, was ended by security forces five hours later. Aside from the dead, eight police officers and six detainees were wounded, security and hospital officials said.