BAGHDAD — A dozen prisoners including Al Qaeda-linked death row inmates escaped from a prison near Baghdad on Friday, the latest sign that Iraq still struggles with basic law and order more than a year after American troops withdrew, officials said.
The brazen prison break happened hours before thousands of mostly Sunni protesters rallied in the capital and other parts of the country, keeping pressure on the Iraqi government. Among the demands of the three-week wave of protests are the release of detainees held in Iraqi jails and changes to a tough counterterrorism law that Sunnis believe unfairly targets their sect.
The prisoners managed to escape through windows in their cells early in the morning and then seized the weapons of guards manning two observation towers, according to a police official.
He said all of the prisoners had been convicted on terrorism charges and that some were awaiting execution.
A guard chief in Taji prison confirmed the account. He said a number of guards were arrested and are being questioned to see if they helped the prisoners escape.
Security forces launched a manhunt to arrest the escapees. He and the police official agreed to discuss the incident on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media.
Jailbreaks are not uncommon in Iraq. In September, scores of inmates escaped following clashes at a prison in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit that left 12 people, including 10 guards, dead. The government acknowledged the inmates in that escape had help from the inside.
Meanwhile, several thousand demonstrators took to the streets for the third Friday in a row in the western province of Anbar and in other predominantly Sunni parts of the country.
The protests began last month following the arrests of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the central government’s most senior Sunni officials.
He has since become a rallying point for the demonstrators, who are angry over perceived second-class treatment by the Shi’ite-led government.
Issawi roused a crowd of several hundred people gathered at a Baghdad mosque after midday prayers Friday, saying the demonstrations ‘‘will be able to shake any throne.’’
Without naming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or other officials directly, he warned that anyone who threatens the protesters could face the same downfall as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president who was pushed from power by the Arab Spring protests in 2011.