BAGHDAD - A dozen prisoners including al-Qaida-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, but did not provide further details of the crimes they were alleged to commit nor give a specific number for how many escaped.
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 Shiite-led government.
Al-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.
"If you want to stay out of prison after your term ends, do not stain yourselves with protesters' blood," he said. The rallies have for the most part been peaceful, and government forces have not tried to break them up.
His address was frequently interrupted by chants from the crowd demanding the toppling of the government.
Also in Baghdad, hundreds of protesters massed amid tight security measures in the courtyard of Abu Hanifa mosque after Friday prayer, demanding the release of detainees. In the northern city of Mosul, thousands of people held a demonstration to call upon authorities to stop what they say are random arrests against Sunnis.
The rallies have grown into the largest and most sustained demonstration of Sunni discontent since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They are raising fresh concerns that Iraq may be heading for new conflict between the country's Sunnis and the Shiite majority.
Meanwhile, police said that gunmen in speeding car opened fire on a security checkpoint in northern Baghdad, killing three policemen and wounding two others.
Sectarian tensions are a major driver of the violence that continues to plague Iraq, with Sunni extremists carrying out attacks mainly against Shiite targets in an effort to undermine the government's authority.
Also Friday, Iraqi authorities also decided to close the border with Syria, only three days after the closure of Iraq's only border crossing with Jordan.
The prime minister's spokesman Ali al-Moussawi cited security concerns for the closing the of al-Walid and Rabiya border crossings. He did explain further, adding that the closure will be in force starting from next Sunday.
Iraq has a third border post with Syria, but it is already closed after it fell in the hands of the Syrian rebels in July 2012.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.