In the early morning hours of July 22, Al Qaeda in Iraq won its greatest victory in years with simultaneous attacks on the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji, freeing some 500 prisoners and killing more than 50 people. The attacks' precision and targets – heavily militarized facilities on the outskirts of Baghdad – show that Iraq's toughest insurgent group is still very much in the fight.
Q: What happened?
Mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombers, and light arms were used to attack the prisons at Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, and Taji, just north of the capital, after midnight on July 22. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq's self-styled emir, was delivering on a promise he made a year to the day before the attack: that the release of detained members of his movement was a top priority. He vowed a "breaking the walls" campaign, and his ability to deliver on his promise is evidence of the extent to which the Sunni movement has regrouped in the past few years. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at first played down the attacks, later admitting that hundreds of insurgents had escaped. Mr. Maliki said guards at the prisons colluded with the attackers.
Q: Why did it happen?
The sectarian civil war that raged in Iraq from 2004 to 2008, claiming more than 100,000 lives, finally cooled, but it never died out. Since taking power, Maliki has consistently marginalized even Sunnis who fought against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now the group has not only drawn fresh recruits to the movement, but it also has dissuaded Sunnis from informing on friends and neighbors.
The raging sectarian civil war in Syria, where the Sunni population forms the bulk of the rebellion against a government backed by Shiite Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, has also battle-hardened a new generation of jihadis, and Iraqi insurgents have played a key role in the fighting across the border. After the Syrian civil war began, Iraq's Al Qaeda affiliate renamed itself "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" to reflect its merger with jihadis fighting against the regime in Syria.
Q: Could Iraq become destabilized?
Iraq has grown more violent over the past year. This May was the most violent month in Iraq (judging by the number of deaths) since June 2008, and May's death toll of 614 was surpassed on July 22. Sectarian bomb attacks on markets and mosques that were hallmarks of Al Qaeda at the height of Iraq's civil war have increased in frequency and intensity.
On July 25, for example, just outside Baghdad, 14 Shiite truck drivers were hauled from their vehicles and executed by insurgents. And just today, car bombings across the country killed at least 46 people. Iraq's security services failed completely at Abu Ghraib and Taji, heavily militarized facilities that were known to be attractive targets for Al Qaeda.
Q: What are the political implications of the attacks for Iraq?
Maliki doesn't even lead a unified Shiite bloc in government. The political movement of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr frequently opposes Maliki's initiatives, and Maliki appeared to blame the Sadrists for assisting the Al Qaeda jailbreak in a television address. He said the guards who collaborated with the attackers were directed to do so by a militia linked to Mr. Sadr.
That claim is evidence of deep political tensions inside Iraq that have been threatening to boil over for months.
Q: What are the regional effects of the attacks?
Growing sectarian violence in Iraq has been fed by the war in Syria. Sunni fighters flow across the border in both directions, and access to weapons and bombmaking material has improved for insurgents.
Meanwhile, Iraq's government has allowed Iranian weapons shipments to pass through its territory and airspace to aid Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and there have been persistent claims of Iraqi Shiite militants fighting alongside government forces there. Regional jihadis view the civil war in Syria as a great opportunity, one on par with the war launched after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. If militant Sunnis manage to succeed in Syria, they plan to turn more fiercely upon the Maliki government.