Over 30 Iraq Interior Ministry officials detained
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A number of officers from Iraq's Interior Ministry have been arrested on charges of trying to rebuild former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baath party, a ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that an elite counterterrorism force, reporting directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, arrested up to 35 officials, some of whom were accused of plotting a coup against the government.
Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf said the officers were arrested under suspicion of being part of the Awda ("Return") party, which is seen as a new incarnation of the once omnipotent Baath party.
"They are now being interrogated under the supervision of the Iraqi judiciary," Khalaf told Reuters.
Khalaf said far fewer than 35 people had been arrested but that those who were detained ranked between lieutenant and brigadier general. He said no special forces were involved.
Asked whether they were plotting a coup, Khalaf repeated that they were suspected of being Al Awda party members.
Brigadier-General Alaa al-Taei, the ministry's head of public relations, said those arrested were not accused of plotting a coup, but instead were suspected of planning to burn down the ministry, possibly to destroy evidence against them.
Maliki, a Shi'ite politician who heads a fragile and often fractious coalition government including Sunni Arabs and Kurds, has grown more assertive in recent months as security improves sharply and the United States begins to narrow its role in Iraq.
Political tension is sharpening ahead of local elections in January that will be a proving ground for rival factions.
Interior Ministry insiders were sceptical about the likelihood of a coup, a possibility raised in recent weeks by U.S. and Iraqi officials. In its short history as a country, Iraq has been subject more often than not to authoritarian rule.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that Iraqi officials have a history of using arrests to consolidate power. They say the Interior Ministry is making strides in purging militia members and corrupt officials, but note that politically motivated arrests still occur even within the ministry.
Being a member of the Baath party has been a politically charged issue since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam in 2003. Iraq has slowly reversed some of the purges of Baath party members that U.S. officials carried out in the early days.
The Times report cited a high-ranking Interior Ministry official as saying those affiliated with Al Awda had paid bribes to other officers to recruit them and that huge amounts of money had been found in the raids.
Another Interior Ministry source, a brigadier general also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he could not judge the coup accusations but he noted charging people with being Baathists was the simplest way to remove them as a threat. Many people in the ministry used to be low-level Baath party members.
A third source within the Interior Ministry, who also requested anonymity, said the arrests were related to accusations of corruption, and said most of them were members of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a rival Shi'ite member of Maliki's coalition government.
He said 32 ministry officials were arrested, including Taha Abu Reghief, a high ranking Interior Ministry official, and Brigadier General Zuhair Murawah Abadi, deputy head of the Iraqi traffic police.
(Additional reporting by Joanne Allen in Washington)
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