BAGHDAD — Four of the most dangerous prisoners in Iraq escaped overnight on Wednesday from American custody in a heavily fortified prison on the edge of Baghdad, an embarrassing security breach that led to an intensive manhunt, American and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The four prisoners, who were not identified, were among more than 200 that Iraq asked the U.S. military to continue to hold because of their prominence and the potential threats they posed after the Iraqi government assumed control of the last American-built prison here, formerly known as Camp Cropper.
The 200 include former members of Saddam Hussein’s government and senior foreign and Iraqi insurgents.
The newly installed American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday night to discuss the prison break.
“We stressed the necessity of tightening security and closing any gaps for criminals to escape,” al-Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Mousawi, said of the meeting in a telephone interview.
The prisoners escaped during what appeared to be a larger attempted prison break late Wednesday evening, though officials declined to provide many details, citing the need for security as American and Iraqi forces intensively searched the areas in and around Baghdad International Airport on Thursday.
The four were discovered missing after two other prisoners were caught trying to escape, prompting a head count of all the prisoners in the remaining American-controlled section of the prison, the American military said in a statement.
It was not clear how the four had managed to get out of a prison located inside a bigger military base, one of the most secure places in all of Iraq.
“Obviously, it is regrettable,” the senior American military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, told reporters during a briefing at the U.S. Embassy on Thursday evening.
The prison break was the latest in a series of troubling developments here since President Barack Obama declared the end of the U.S. combat mission last week and celebrated the reduction of American troops to below 50,000 for the first time since the invasion in 2003. Attacks by insurgents, including one that drew Americans into a firefight on Sunday, the killing of two American soldiers by an Iraqi soldier at a base north of Baghdad and now the escape have bolstered a sense of unease here at a time when violence is spiking and the country’s politics remain deadlocked.
The U.S. military turned over control of Camp Cropper — and 1,500 prisoners — to the Iraqis on July 15, hailing what officials described as another milestone in the gradual withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the maturation of Iraq’s own security services.
Camp Cropper once housed some of the most prominent Iraqis captured by the Americans, including Saddam.