An al-Qaeda front group has claimed responsibility for jail breaks to release hundreds of militants which left more than 40 people dead and further eroded confidence in the government.
Separately, 12 people were killed and 49 wounded in a series of bombings which targeted worshipers gathered for evening prayers at four Sunni mosques on Tuesday.
The bloodshed added to this month’s soaring death toll, which stands at 638, the highest monthly figure in a year marked by spiraling violence.
Another 1,445 people were wounded through July 23, according to Agence France-Presse figures based on reports from security and medical sources.
Both Sunni and Shiite Muslim places of worship have been attacked in recent months, raising fears of a return to the all-out sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands of people in past years.
The prison breakouts in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and Taji, north of the capital on Monday, illustrated both the growing reach of militants and the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
“The mujahidin [holy warriors], after months of preparation and planning, targeted two of the largest prisons of the Safavid government,” said a statement signed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, using a pejorative term for Shiites.
The group was created by a merger of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch and the jihadist Syrian al-Nusra Front.
Its statement released on Tuesday said that “hundreds” of inmates, among them 500 militants, were freed in the attacks.
It also said the operation was the final one in a campaign aimed at freeing prisoners and targeting justice system officials, which was called for in an audio statement attributed to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, last year.
“Dark days 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,” a senior security official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“Those who escaped will work on committing acts of revenge, most of which might be suicide attacks,” the official added.
In what appears to have been a carefully planned operation, militants waiting outside the prisons launched their attacks after inmates began rioting.
Militants then attacked with mortar rounds, bombs and gunfire, sparking clashes with security forces that raged for 10 hours.
At least 20 security forces members and 21 inmates died.
Officials have declared “a curfew around the two prisons, where ongoing search operations are being conducted,” Iraqi Ministry of Justice spokesman Wissam al-Fraiji told reporters.
Fraiji said 108 escaped prisoners had been recaptured, and reinforcements from the interior and justice ministries have been sent to the two prisons.
Iraqi MP Hakem al-Zamili, a member of parliament’s security and defense committee, confirmed senior al-Qaeda members had escaped, and expressed fear they would return to haunt Iraq.
“These terrorists will go to Syria to return to the [al-Qaeda] organization and return again to Iraq to carry out terrorist attacks against the Iraqi people,” he said.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are among those battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which shares a long border with Iraq.
The conflict pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
It has spilled over the border and raised tensions in Iraq. Both Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites have traveled to Syria to fight.
The prison escapes and mosque bombings illustrated the woeful security situation in Iraq and threaten to undermine confidence in the government.
“The escape of prisoners in this organized way from the biggest prisons in Iraq is another sign of the deterioration of security in Iraq in general, and Baghdad in particular,” said Hamid Fadhel, a Baghdad University political science professor.
The series of bombings on Tuesday night targeted worshipers gathered for evening prayers at four Sunni mosques.