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Opinion: Al-Qaeda’s escape to Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iraqi army soldiers stand guard at the Abu–Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. Sept. 2, 2006 file photo. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

It will take more time to uncover the details of the escape of leaders and members of Al-Qaeda from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. It will also take great effort to identify the details of an operation of this size and complexity, which, no doubt, will be revealed by a serious investigation.

However, the difficulties that surround revealing details of the operation do not hinder attempts to understand its political objectives, leaving its technical details to the investigation, which will be conducted later by Iraqi, regional and international parties, due to the security and political implications of this operation, which transcend Iraq.

Understanding the operation in its political framework requires a look at the data surrounding it. This data is divided into two parts: practical data and political data. In any case, we cannot separate the two and their interaction within an operation, which is no doubt highly complex.

The most practical data surrounding the escape of members and leaders of Al-Qaeda are embodied in the fact that the operation took place in Abu Ghraib, which is one of the most high-security prisons in Iraq.

It was the main prison used by the US forces to hold their enemies when they were still in Iraq, which means that the security procedures implemented there were the most stringent possible. The second reason is seen in the large number of members and leaders of Al-Qaeda present in this prison—around 500—including a large number who were sentenced to death, which suggests a strong and exceptional security monitoring of the prison and the prisoners.

The third reason is the ease with which the operation was carried out, in freeing the prisoners in such large numbers amid a tense security situation in Iraq in general, and Baghdad in particular.

The fourth and most important reason is that Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki is directly responsible for the security and defense portfolio in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda is the most dangerous threat to Iraqis, according to official Iraqi statements.

The political data related to the operation is not less important than the practical data. The first part comes with the escalation in the rhetoric about the growing power of Al-Qaeda and its allies, especially in Syria and Iraq. This kind of rhetoric has been adopted by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, who claim that they are fighting terrorism and extremism in their countries, and that the regime in each state confronts extremist terror groups, not popular forces and political opposition groups.

The second piece of political data is the fact that the operation came within an alliance between the Iraqi leadership and the Syrian regime. This is an alliance that has cost Iraq important aid which it provided for the regime in Damascus, including sending Iraqi volunteers to fight alongside the regime’s forces, and facilitating the movement of jihadists to fight in Syria, which increased the circle of violence there. This has indirectly assisted the Syrian government, allowing it to strengthen its hold on Syria and Syrians.

A third piece of data from the political point of view, but which relates specifically to the Iraqi political situation, is the escape of the members and leaders of Al-Qaeda from Abu Ghraib prison, and its repercussions on the conflict between the prime minister and his adversaries.

This issue can take the struggle for power out of its traditional context, to put it into a context related to the escape of the prisoners, nothing more. Even within this context, the operation will be beneficial to Maliki; he can use it as a tool against his enemies and opponents in the government, and exclude those of suspect loyalty to him in the security departments and other government departments and replace them with loyal followers.

The conclusion is: we have practical and political data that suggests that the escape of more than 500 Al-Qaeda leaders and members from Abu Ghraib was a planned operation, not by Al-Qaeda, even if it took part in the execution, but by neighboring intelligence parties, with the knowledge of, perhaps, the people in power. The aim may be to push a group of Al-Qaeda men to Syria to fight there, in a way which would increase the violence and terrorism, and strengthen the rhetoric about the extremist terrorist groups the regime is fighting, even if those groups were fighting against the aims of the revolution and against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and impose their terrorism on many Syrians and revolutionaries that are not controlled by the regime.