BAGHDAD // Al Qa'eda prisoners who escaped from a jail in Basra last week had high-level government connections and were helped by insiders from a corrupt Iraqi intelligence unit, investigators believe.
The 12 detainees, including leading members of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qa'eda affiliate, walked out of a high security government compound on Friday, apparently disguised as police officers.
In the aftermath of the jailbreak, the federal authorities in Baghdad ordered the arrest of all security officers working at the site, 550km south of the capital, fearing the escape had inside help.
Those fears have now been confirmed, according to a senior security officer privy to details of the ongoing investigation. He said the Iraqi intelligence cell based on the Basra Palace compound, the same unit that had been leading the interrogation of the al Qa'eda detainees, had been infiltrated by the militants and had colluded to set them free.
"The basic picture we have is that a cell inside the intelligence system had been broken by al Qa'eda and got them out of prison," the officer said.
"Our investigation is also pointing to someone in the Iraqi government in Baghdad who has his hands in this; a senior government official with connections to the intelligence unit."
The security officer said a number of suspects from the intelligence unit had been detained and were being questioned, but that other members thought to be involved were not yet in custody.
"Some of the [intelligence] cell members are in our hands, but not all of them," he said. "When we have them, we expect to be able to get the name of the official in Baghdad who is involved."
Investigators had been told to report directly to the office of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, the official said, and had been given a remit to probe senior security and government figures. "We have the authority from the prime minister to look at anyone, we were told to look at senior people if we thought it was necessary," the officer said.
Yesterday the Basra police chief, Major Gen Adil Daham, was also fired over the incident, said the head of Basra's provincial council, Jabbar Amin.
Among the prisoners who escaped was Majid Abdul Aziz, a former Basra college professor who is now considered to be the leader of al Qa'eda's operations in southern Iraq. The security services believe he was involved in a series of bombings, including a triple explosion in Basra market last August, which killed some 50 people and wounded more than 100 others.
Mohammed Ishab Yacoub, another of the escaped prisoners is believed to have carried out a string of assassinations throughout southern Iraq.
Amar Tumma, a Fadila party MP from Basra, said the escape may have been launched because the prisoners, under interrogation, were close to admitting intelligence units had been infiltrated at senior levels.
"I believe the prisoners were freed on orders, perhaps because some officials in the Basra security forces were worried that they were about to be exposed," he said. "It has left a big question mark over the abilities of the security forces. It's a serious problem; we have to clean out our security and rebuild, we have to make sure the foundations are strong."
Ali al Maliki, the head of Basra provincial council's security committee, said the escape had exposed dangerous flaws, even inside elite anti-terrorist units.
"Basra has problems, the security system is not stable and what happened in the palace jail has really worried us," he said. "We have to have a full investigation, from the smallest officer to the largest, we must investigate the whole security system to find out what happened."
Mr al Maliki said it was too soon to confirm that senior security officials had aided the jailbreak, but he was adamant it would have required inside assistance.
"We are still in the investigating stage but I'm sure people inside the leadership of the security system in Basra helped them escape, they made it easy for them," he said.
Two key events appear to have preceded the escape. First, the planned transfer of the prisoners to Baghdad was delayed, at the request of interrogators in Basra who asked for more time to get information from the suspects. Second, police reinforcements stationed at the prison compound were apparently redeployed on the morning the prisoners walked out of jail, significantly reducing the strength of security.
Susan al Sa'ab, an MP with the ruling National Alliance coalition, said: "Federal police were given orders to leave the prison at 6am on the day of the escape. It is essential we find out exactly what happened. If there are terrorists inside the security forces, it undermines the whole system and defeats the work of the good officers who are trying to protect us all.
"The dirty security units must be found and their members must be punished for their crimes."