BAGHDAD – The accused mastermind of a Baghdad church siege that killed dozens last fall nearly escaped from prison Sunday after wresting a gun from a guard and launching an hours-long assault that left 17 people dead, including a top Iraqi counterterrorism general.
None of the prisoners — all suspected members of al-Qaida in Iraq — managed to break out of the heavily fortified Interior Ministry headquarters in eastern Baghdad. Ringleader Abu Huthaifa al-Battawi, who allegedly led the October attack on the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral that left 68 dead and stunned the nation, was shot and killed as he tried to flee in a car.
The midnight melee at what is supposed to be one of country's most secure jails heightens doubt about whether Iraqi forces are ready to protect the nation as U.S. troops prepare to leave by December.
"Where are the authorities? There is no government," shouted Dhia Raheema al-Taiee, nephew of the slain counterterror chief, Brig. Gen. Muaeid Mohammed Saleh.
"He was in a secure compound, and he is a high rank, and yet he was killed so easily at the hands of prisoners who were able to obtain weapons," al-Taiee said at his uncle's funeral Sunday afternoon.
Nearby, policemen defiantly unloaded their handguns and rifles into the air in a show of grief and anger.
Six police officers and 11 detainees were killed in the attempted jailbreak, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's top military spokesman.
Al-Moussawi and two Interior Ministry officials described a dramatic blitz by al-Battawi as he and up to 24 other prisoners were being taken from their cells to interrogation rooms.
Usually, guards unshackle prisoners as they are being interrogated, but al-Moussawi said the al-Qaida suspects should have been restrained since they are considered a top terror threat.
Al-Battawi's hands had just been unbound when he wrested a gun from a guard, killed him and freed his fellow prisoners. Another inmate then charged into a different room, killing a second guard and taking his weapon.
Other prisoners joined the fight, seizing an assault rifle and three other guns.
Inmates also obtained grenades, said Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament's security and defense committee.
The prisoners then entered Saleh's office and shot him, along with another officer who was in the room. Saleh oversaw counterterrorism missions and battled organized crime in eastern Baghdad.
"I was in the next room, and I heard shots fired and screams in the corridor. I opened the door and saw about four al-Qaida detainees moving around and I closed the door immediately," said Saleh's bodyguard, Jawad Kadhum.
"Then I heard one of them saying, 'This is the director's room,' and I heard a flurry of gunshots," he said.
At one point, al-Battawi and four inmates jumped into a car on the compound and fled toward an exit gate but were shot and killed by a guard before they could escape, al-Zamili said.
The brawl, which began around 10 p.m. Saturday, was ended by security forces five hours later. Aside from the dead, eight police officers and six detainees were wounded, security and hospital officials said.
The injured detainees were brought to Baghdad's al-Kindi hospital under tight security, treated and then taken away again by security officials to an unidentified location, officials said.
Al-Moussawi said the attack appeared to have been planned, and that inmates took advantage of lax security at the prison to overpower guards. "Tight security measures should have been taken," he said.
Al-Moussawi said the late-night interrogations sought more details about the Oct. 31 church siege. Militants burst into the church during Mass and gunned down priests and worshippers before detonating their explosives-packed vests. Half the parishioners were killed in the attack, which so scared Iraq's minority Christian community that thousands have fled the country, saying they hoped never to return.
In a statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for an investigation of the nearly successful jailbreak, urging Iraqi forces to "not allow any failure or breach of security."
National security is a sensitive topic for al-Maliki, who barely won a second term last year and has so far failed to fill the top posts at the interior and defense ministries more than four months after he seated his government. Al-Maliki is reluctant to ask U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011, which would require a new security agreement between Washington and Baghdad and anger anti-American Shiite allies who helped put him in power.
Sunday's prison assault marks the latest blunder by Iraqi forces, and raises questions about whether they still need training and other on-the-ground aid from U.S. troops.
"The measures used by Iraqi authorities to control and guard the prisons are still weak and inefficient, and shortcomings need to be fixed immediately," said Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo. "This is another indication that we should still be worried about the performance and capabilities of our security forces after the U.S. withdrawal."
Associated Press writers Saad Abdul-Kadir in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.