BAGHDAD — Hundreds of extremists were feared to be on the run in Iraq on Monday after al-Qaida's affiliate in the country launched an assault on the Abu Ghraib prison, offering a fresh boost to the group's resurgent fortunes in Iraq.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said in a statement that an unspecified number of prisoners had escaped from Abu Ghraib but none from a second facility, Taji, that also came under assault. In Washington, U.S. officials closely monitoring the jailbreak said the number of escapees was thought to be 500 to 600, including a significant number of al-Qaida operatives.
The attacks killed dozens Sunday, including at least 25 members of the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi officials said. Insurgents fired mortar shells and detonated suicide and car bombs, drawing Iraqi forces into firefights that lasted more than an hour.
Members of the Iraqi parliament who said they had been briefed by security officials said the escapees included some top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, many of whom had been captured by U.S. troops.
Iraq's security forces set up checkpoints on highways leading west to Syria and Jordan and around Baghdad's airport to snare fugitives. Some prisoners were recaptured, Iraqi news media reported.
But even if the prisoners are recaptured, the scale of the attacks on the heavily guarded facilities reinforced an impression among many Iraqis that their security forces are struggling to cope with a resurgent al-Qaida since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, taking with them much of the expertise and technology that had been used to hold extremists at bay.
There was no formal assertion of responsibility for the Sunday night assaults on the prisons, but they bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and many extremist websites identified the attacks as the work of the Qaida-affiliated group.
The jailbreak coincided with a relentless wave of bombings blamed on the extremist group that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent months, returning Iraq to levels of violence not seen since the 2007 surge of U.S. troops.
At least 46 Iraqis died over the weekend in bombings that targeted cafes and mosques, bringing to more than 450 the number killed this month.
The gains of the surge are in jeopardy, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who monitors extremist activity in Iraq. "This is a significant milestone in the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq," he said. "A good deal of the progress achieved from 2006 onwards has essentially been undone now."