An Al-Qaeda front group Tuesday claimed brazen assaults on two Iraqi prisons that freed hundreds of militants including leaders, killed more than 40 people and threaten to further erode confidence in the government.
"The mujahideen (holy warriors), after months of preparation and planning, targeted two of the largest prisons of the Safavid government," said the statement signed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), using a pejorative term for Shiites.
The statement, posted on jihadist forums, comes as security forces were Tuesday hunting for the escapees, said by MPs to number at least 500.
The attacks struck Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad, and a prison in Taji, north of the capital, on Sunday night, though accounts differed as to whether inmates escaped from both sites, or just from Abu Ghraib.
A high-ranking security official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the escapees included high-ranking Al-Qaeda members, and that they will likely attempt to launch revenge attacks.
"Dark day are waiting for Iraq. Some of those who escaped are senior leaders of Al-Qaeda and the operation was executed for this group of leaders," the officials said
"Those who escaped will work on committing acts of revenge, most of which might be suicide attacks," he added.
In what appears to have been a carefully-planned operation, militants waiting outside the jails launched their attacks after the prisoners inside began rioting.
"The first information we have indicates that the incident started from inside the prison," the official said.
"There were riots and then the prisoners took control of some guns and called the groups that were waiting outside," he added.
Militants then pounded the buildings with mortar rounds, bombs and gunfire, sparking clashes with prison authorities that raged for 10 hours. At least 20 security forces members and 21 inmates died in the unrest.
Officials have declared "a curfew around the two prisons, where ongoing search operations are being conducted," justice ministry spokesman Wissam al-Fraiji told AFP.
Fraiji said that 108 escaped prisoners had been recaptured, and reinforcements from the interior and justice ministries have been sent to the two prisons.
The assaults and mass escapes "affect people's trust in the security forces and in the government, because people will start to worry that the criminal can commit a crime, go to prison, and then get out easily," said Ali al-Haidari, an Iraqi expert in security and strategic affairs.
"What happened puts the government in a very embarrassing situation. What we saw was a huge attack with large numbers of fighters, and it seems that the guards of the two prisons were not able to stop such an attack," he said.