BAGHDAD — A dozen terror suspects disguised in police uniforms broke out of an Iraqi jail Friday, prompting a manhunt across the nation's south for what officials called a dangerous group of top-ranking insurgents linked to al-Qaida.
At least two of the suspects had formerly been held at Camp Bucca, the sprawling prison on Iraq's southern border with Kuwait where the U.S. military held tens of thousands of suspected insurgents – all of whom were transferred to Iraqi custody when the prison camp closed in September 2009.
The 12 suspects were awaiting trial when they obtained the police uniforms and walked out of the small, temporary detention center in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces before dawn in the southern port city of Basra, said three Iraqi security officials.
Iraqi authorities immediately set up checkpoints on two major northbound highways to stop cars, asking all police to display their official ID cards as they urgently tried to track down the suspects. Basra is Iraq's second-largest city and is located 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.
The 12 were the only detainees held at the palace's makeshift jail. Intelligence officers had recently finished an investigation into their suspected ties to the Islamic State of Iraq, which is linked to al-Qaida. It's not clear how the detainees got the police uniforms. One intelligence official said authorities were looking into whether they had inside help from guards.
The deputy head of the Basra provincial council, Ahmed al-Sulaiti, told reporters that the federal government ordered the detention of all the security officials who were supposed to be protecting the palace compound from which the detainees escaped.
The intelligence officer said half of the detainees were recently arrested for stealing cars in Basra and confessed to being involved in multiple bombings since 2004 in Basra and the southern cities of Amarah and Nasiriyah. Their confessions led authorities to the other six suspects, the officer said.
The fugitives were believed to be heading to Baghdad to obtain fake IDs and passports to help them flee Iraq, the intelligence officer said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Iraq has been struggling to keep terror suspects behind bars since U.S. forces turned over legal custody of their detainees to the government. In July, detainees linked to al-Qaida escaped at least twice from a Baghdad area prison known as Camp Cropper shortly after the U.S. handed it over to Iraqi authorities.
The jailbreaks deeply embarrassed Iraq's government, which is eager to demonstrate it can control its justice system without U.S. oversight as American troops prepare to leave the country by the end of the year.
Also Friday, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as part of al-Sadr's push to gain credibility in the nation's political and religious circles since returning from voluntary exile. There were no details on what the two men discussed during their half-hour meeting at al-Sadr's ancestral home in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, and aides declined to comment.
The meeting is significant because it highlights al-Sadr's efforts to portray himself as a mature, disciplined statesman after four years in Iran.
After his return last week, al-Sadr branded the fewer than 50,000 U.S. forces in Iraq as "occupiers" and said he would pressure al-Maliki to force them out by the end of 2011 as planned. Al-Maliki held onto a second term as prime minister this year largely due to al-Sadr's support.
The radical cleric met earlier this week in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite figure, with whom Talabani also visited on Friday. The president's office said the two men discussed the plight of Christians under threat in Iraq and concerns about corruption in the county's newly seated government.
Associated Press writers Saad Abdul-Kadir and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.