BAGHDAD // A series of prison breakouts has revealed major flaws in Iraq's jail system, with corrupt officials and militant groups helping prisoners escape, the government and independent monitors say.
Five members from the Mahdi Army broke out of the Taji prison west of Baghdad on May 20 as they were being transferred to a detention centre in the capital.
Earlier this year, Adnan Taj Shalal Sharhan, a major figure in the League of the Righteous - a violent Shiite faction - escaped from the same prison.
There have been about 4,000 cases of militants and terrorists escaping detention with inside help since 2006, according to figures compiled by the Iraqi Reconciliation Society (IRS), an independent organisation monitoring the country' jails,
The IRS blames corrupt prison administrators, bribery and political connections. Most of the escapes happened in Baghdad, IRS records show.
The Taji breakout prompted Iraq's ministry of justice to promise wide-reaching changes to the administration of various prisons after it admitted staff and high-level officials had "been involved in escapes".
Haider al Saadi, a justice ministry spokesman, said in statement after the Taji escape that "weak and corrupted" administrators had let "a large number" of detainees break out.
He said checks were under way to determine just how many prisoners had been allowed out since the Iraqi government took control of jails formerly run by the US military. The last prison under US control, Camp Cropper in Baghdad, was transferred to the Iraqi authorities last July, although some detainees remain in American custody.
"The ministry is determined to make strong action after what happened," Mr al Saadi said.
He also spoke of the ministry's "serious concerns" over sectarianism among prison officials and said staff were susceptible to "political pressure".
Speaking on condition of anonymity, another justice ministry official said there were prisoners with political connections who were "untouchable" while in custody and who eventually were set free because of those connections.
"Some of these prisoners are militants, including al Qa'eda, who enjoy support from political parties," the official said. He insisted the justice ministry was working to tackle the corruption, which he said had been allowed to flourish for years under previous governments.
The extent and reach of graft and political connections in prisons was highlighted in a recent investigation by a parliamentary committee set up to examine the escape of 12 al Qa'eda figures, some facing death sentences, from an interrogation centre in Basra on January 12.
In that case, the prisoners, including Majid Abdul Aziz, thought to be al Qaeda's commander for southern Iraq, left the prison dressed in police uniforms. Speaking to The National shortly afterwards, a government official said it was an inside job, and that a "very senior" official appeared to be involved.
Information leaked to the media about the committee's findings said Abdul Karim Abdul Fadel, also known as Ali al Basri, had been implicated in the escape. Mr Fadel is the security adviser to the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki.
The claim that such a high-ranking official had helped spring al Qa'eda suspects from jail was further fuelled by claims, made by MPs and in local media reports, that Mr Fadel, together with Brig Ali Fadel Omran, a Baghdad military commander also said to have been named in connection with the ecape, fled the country just as the parliamentary report was being completed.
There have also been persistent allegations that an arrest warrant for Mr Fadel was annulled by a Baghdad judge under pressure from government officials.
Suzan al Saad, a committee member, said the probe had "led directly to senior officials in the prime minister's office who planned the escape" from Basra.
"There were high-level security officers connected directly to the prime minister's office who were coming and going from the prison compound and who had no reason to be there because they had no formal involvement in dealing with those prisoners," she said in an interview.
Those officers had obtained access to the prison without their vehicles being subjected to mandatory inspections, she said.
The committee also found that security cameras inside the prison had been sabotaged.
"We were told they were malfunctioning but that was not the case. They had been quite deliberately broken," she said.
Mohammad al Sayhood, an MP with the ruling National Alliance, the bloc headed by Mr al Maliki, insisted the committee had not directly implicated the premier's office.
"The committee's report is quite clear that some senior officers in Basra were involved in the [Basra] escape but it does not refer directly to the prime minister's office," he said. "Just because senior officers are involved does not mean Mr al Maliki's office directly supervised this escape."
Another National Alliance MP, Saad al Mutlabi, said claims of involvement made against Mr Fadel, the prime minister's security adviser, were based on "no evidence" and had been made by Baathists trying to overthrow the government.
Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that it was an inside job.
"We understand some security forces have been infiltrated by al Qa'eda and other militants," said Mr al Mutlabi. "But it has not reached the dangerous level of high officials."
His National Alliance colleague, Mr al Sayhood, was less sure that the conspiring officials were of low rank.
"There are senior officers in the security system who have been broken and infiltrated by al Qa'eda and militant groups," he said.
Some MPs say the time has come for a complete review of the prison system and the security services.
Haider al Mullah, a spokesman for the Iraqiyya bloc, Mr al Maliki's principal rival, has called for the parliamentary report on the Basra prison break to be put before the public.
"It's time to open the files," he said. "There have been serious problems on more than one occasion in different prisons which makes it clear there is corruption in the security services."
Failure to address the issue posed a serious threat to Iraq's future, Khalid Abdul Wahab al Mullah, an MP with the National Alliance, said.
"We hear from time to time that al Qa'eda members and militia leaders have been arrested and we feel happy, and then it's only a matter of time before we hear those same people have been freed or have escaped," he said.
"These are dangerous men who want to lead the country into a future sectarian war, and they are being helped by security forces that still work in a sectarian way. We need to deal with this and to create a system that works for the good of Iraq, not for narrow interests."