At least ten killed in Iraqi prison shootout

 

At least ten Iraqi prison guards and detainees were killed in a shootout today at a Baghdad high-security jail after at least one prisoner grabbed a weapon and opened fire.

A prison guard who said he witnessed the early morning bloodshed said he saw five prisoners and five staff killed after Iraqi prisoners managed to grab a Kalashnikov rifle while they were being taken out to clean the yard.

They freed several others and broke into the prison armoury, sparking a gunbattle with Iraqi and US troops. The US and Iraqi armies both said four inmates were killed and the US military said five security personnel also died. A US soldier was among six people wounded.

Three headquarters sources at the Baghdad police and at the Interior Ministry, one of them a general, insisted, that initial accounts of at least 20 dead prisoners were accurate. A senior official at another ministry said eight detainees died.

Hospital staff look at one of the bodies of victims of a prison shooting near Baghdad today
Hospital staff look at one of the bodies of victims of a prison shooting near Baghdad today
Officials put the number of prisoners held at the facility, a maximum security jail for high-risk inmates, at between 90 and 200. They were housed inside the sprawling Adala military base - known as Camp Justice by the US army - for added security, one senior Iraqi official said.

"Sixteen prisoners attempted to escape the facility after first storming the armory," the US military said in a statement, adding the incident began about 8:15 a.m. (0515 GMT).

"A firefight ensued leaving four Iraqi prison guards, one interpreter and four prisoners dead. In addition, one US soldier and five prisoners were injured during the attempted escape. All prisoners are accounted for."

Prison conditions in Iraq have been a matter of controversy. US officials have expressed disquiet since the discovery by US troops last month of dozens of abused Sunni Arab suspects in a secret bunker run by the Interior Ministry, which minority Sunnis accuse of running Shi'ite sectarian militias.

The US military is holding some 14,000 Iraqi guerrilla suspects and commanders say they will not transfer them to Iraqi custody until they are sure of better standards. US troops were found to have abused prisoners in 2003 at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In other incidents, US troops have shot dead unarmed detainees during prison riots.

The Shiite religious bloc leading Iraq's parliamentary elections, meanwhile, held talks with Kurdish leaders about who should get the top 12 government jobs. Police in Karbala said 31 bodies had been unearthed in a mass grave discovered this week that's believed to date back to a 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.

Officials hoped to identify the bodies through DNA testing. The talks between the majority Shiites and the Kurds were seen as part of an effort to force the main Sunni Arab organisations to come to the bargaining table.

All groups have begun jockeying, and the protests are widely considered to be part of an attempt by Sunni Arabs to maximise their negotiating position. The discussions come at a critical time for Iraq, with the United States placing high hopes on forming a broad-based coalition government that will provide the fledgling democracy with the stability and security it needs to allow American troops to begin returning home.

In another of continuing political demonstrations around the country, more than 4,000 people rallied today in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, in favour of the major Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Sunni Arabs formed the backbone of Saddam's government, and the Bush administration hopes to pull them away from the insurgency that has ravaged the country with daily bloodshed. The major Sunni Arab party alleges that the December 15 elections were tainted by fraud.

Preliminary results from the vote have given the United Iraqi Alliance a big lead, but one unlikely to allow it to govern without forming a coalition with other groups. Final results are expected early next month, but the Shiite religious bloc may win about 130 seats in the 275-member parliament - short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.

The Kurds could get about 55, the main Sunni Arab groups about 50 and the secular bloc headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, about 25.