BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Iraq’s former electricity minister, the most senior official arrested on corruption charges here, made a brazen escape Sunday afternoon from an Iraqi jail in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
There were conflicting reports about how the former official, Aiham Alsammarae, who is a citizen of both the United States and Iraq, was able not only to break out of jail but also to elude capture in the four-square-mile area that includes the American Embassy, Iraq’s Parliament and the homes of politicians and members of the American military command.
In fact, the Americans were not even told about the jailbreak until the next day, said a senior Western official familiar with the investigation.
As of late Monday, neither the Iraqis nor the Americans had any idea of where Mr. Alsammarae had gone.
Iraqi officials initially blamed the Americans and later claimed that a private security detail used by Mr. Alsammarae when he was a minister was responsible, saying that a fleet of S.U.V.’s filled with “Westerners” pulled up to the jail and spirited him away, perhaps with the complicity of some of his jailers.
“The majority of police were on duty patrolling” away from the jail, said the chief of Iraq’s Public Integrity Commission, Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi . A private security detail, he said, “used this opportunity to storm the station and take him away.”
American officials familiar with the investigation disputed that account, but spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the facts were not completely known and they did not want to contradict the Iraqis publicly.
“I don’t want this to get pinned on the Americans because this is clearly an Iraqi problem,” said the senior Western official. The prison is run by Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which has been plagued with problems, ranging from infiltration by militias to corruption.
“Outside the Green Zone, they complain that security is the reason they cannot do their jobs,” the Western official said, referring to the Iraqi police. “In the Green Zone they just have to do their jobs.”
While the Green Zone is the most protected part of this country — a maze of massive concrete blast walls and military checkpoints with thousands of armed guards working for private security firms and American soldiers — Mr. Alsammarae was hardly kept under tight security.
He was not even locked up in a cell. Instead, he was quartered in a spare officer’s room near the lobby of the prison. He had at least two cellphones and a computer with access to e-mail. He behaved more as a friend to his jailers than a prisoner.
During a recent visit by a reporter and a photographer from The New York Times, Mr. Alsammarae was allowed to walk out in front of the jail and guide a tour of sorts around the facility. He went to where the cells are located and chatted with a deputy finance minister who was also in jail.
Western officials familiar with the investigation into his escape said that there may have been confusion about the involvement of American or other foreign private security forces because, hours before Mr. Alsammarae disappeared, a fleet of S.U.V.’s did stop by the prison.
However, the official said, they were there to pick up two Iraqi policemen for a joint search of a suspected weapons cache elsewhere in the Green Zone. The official said Mr. Alsammarae was seen at least an hour after those vehicles left.
Mr. Alsammarae arrived in Iraq just after the American invasion in 2003 and was appointed electricity minister that summer by L. Paul Bremer III, the leader of the American occupation authority. He stayed on until May 2005. Mr. Alsammarae was convicted on one of several charges of corruption related to public expenditures by the ministry during his tenure. Though that conviction was overturned, other charges were pending.
In other developments on Monday, Saddam Hussein returned to court as prosecutors presented evidence that they said links him to the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s. Mr. Hussein, who was an ally of the United States at the time, is accused of leading a campaign that left 180,000 Kurds dead.
In violence on Monday, a car bomb killed five people and wounded at least 19 near a vegetable market in Sadiya, a Sunni area in the south of Baghdad. At least 44 bodies were found around Baghdad, many showing signs of being bound and tortured.
The United States military said three American soldiers had been killed. That raised the American death toll in December to 60, The Associated Press reported.