THE accused mastermind of last year’s bloody Baghdad church siege grabbed a policeman’s gun mid-interrogation today and led a jail mutiny that left eight police, including a general, and 10 inmates dead.
The daring incident by suspected Al-Qaeda insurgents came as security was tightened in Iraq, where authorities fear reprisals after the death of Osama bin Laden in a US special forces raid in Pakistan on May 2, with 24 policemen already having been killed in a car bomb south of Baghdad on Thursday.
Among the eight policemen killed in Sunday’s incident was Brigadier General Moayed al-Saleh, the head of counter-terrorism for Baghdad’s central Karrada district; a lieutenant colonel and two first lieutenants, a senior counter-terrorism official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“This cell, which was dismantled in November, was accused of a large number of terrorist operations — not just the one against the church,” the official said.
“Several investigations were ongoing against them, and that’s why they were still being held by this unit.”
An interior ministry official, who did not want to be named, said that Huthaifa al-Batawi, who stands accused of planning the October 31 siege on a Baghdad church in which 46 hostages and seven security force members died, was among those killed.
He said, without elaborating, that six other people were wounded in the uprising at the interior ministry detention facility in Baghdad.
According to the counter-terrorism official, Batawi, who was the Baghdad chief of Al-Qaeda’s front group in Baghdad when he was arrested on November 27, was being interrogated because officials were seeking intelligence of possible attacks in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
Batawi managed to grab the weapon off the first lieutenant who was questioning him and shot him dead, before taking hostages and releasing a group of fellow inmates.
The detainees made their way to Saleh’s office and shot him in the head.
At that point, they discovered a cache of weapons and grenades, and after killing the lieutenant colonel five of them attempted to break out of the prison by getting into a police vehicle.
Before they could flee, however, security reinforcements arrived and killed the group trying to escape, the counter-terrorism official said.
The remaining five holed up inside the prison and the mutiny did not end until that group was killed at 4:30 am local time today.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, during a visit to Tunisia yesterday, said it was “likely” that Al-Qaeda could plan attacks in Iraq to avenge bin Laden’s death.
Security forces nationwide tightened security in the wake of a car bombing at a police station in Hilla, south of Baghdad, on Thursday that killed 24 policemen and wounded 72 others.
Violence is down in Iraq since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but attacks remain common. A total of 211 people died in violence in April, according to official figures.
The Baghdad church siege that Batawi allegedly coordinated sparked a massive exodus of Christians from the capital and other major cities, according to NGOs and migration groups.