BAGHDAD — Four prisoners escaped a maximum-security U.S. military facility housing al Qaida in Iraq suspects and former members of Saddam Hussein's regime, officials said Thursday, in an embarrassing development for American forces as they hand over security operations in Iraq.
The four prisoners, still at large, were among some 200 guarded by American troops at the Karkh prison, formerly known as Camp Cropper, just outside Baghdad. They include many convicted or suspected terrorists and eight former regime officials, five of whom have been sentenced to death.
U.S. military officials didn't identify the prisoners and offered few details on how the escape happened, saying only that they were hunting the men.
"We're working in concert with the Iraqi security forces to continue to search for them," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a U.S. military spokesman. "Obviously, it's regrettable."
The U.S. military said that prison guards late Wednesday caught two detainees trying to escape from Compound 5, a separate facility where American troops are guarding reportedly the most dangerous prisoners at Karkh. When U.S. forces conducted a thorough search, they found that four prisoners were missing.
Buchanan said that American soldiers were responsible for guarding the prisoners, but didn't know whether Iraqi troops also served as guards there. He stressed that responsibility for the escape rested with U.S. forces.
"Frankly, this has nothing to do with the Iraqi security forces," Buchanan said. "These four detainees escaped (from) an area that was under U.S. control."
When U.S. forces handed control of the prison to the Iraqi military in July, they called it a milestone in transferring security operations to the Iraqis. Camp Cropper had been one of the most notorious U.S. bases in Baghdad, home to the cell where Saddam was held until his execution in December 2006.
In July, the prison held approximately 1,500 detainees. At the request of the Iraqi government, however, the U.S. military continued to hold 200 men at Compound 5, including suspected members of al Qaida in Iraq as well as other Sunni and Shiite Muslim militia groups.
A week after the transfer, four detainees escaped from Iraqi custody with the help of a prison guard, according to Iraqi government officials. The incident raised questions about the ability of Iraqi forces to operate without U.S. military oversight.
The escape was the latest setback to U.S. forces as they hand over security operations to the Iraqis. Earlier this week, two U.S. soldiers were killed and nine were injured when an Iraqi soldier opened fire at an Iraqi Army base south of the city of Kirkuk.
U.S. military officials described the incident, in which the Iraqi soldier was also killed, as a premeditated attack but said they were investigating.
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