BAGHDAD A man identified as Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's former deputy, criticised a recent arrest campaign against Baathists and denied they had plotted against the Iraqi government.
Syria-based Arrai television aired on Thursday an audio tape of a man it identified as Douri, the head of Saddam's banned Baath Party and the highest-ranking member of Saddam's regime still at large. There was no independent confirmation of the speaker's identity.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government launched an arrest campaign last month against Baathists and former military officers who allegedly plotted to oust the government when U.S. troops depart by year-end.
Maliki said more than 600 people had been arrested on evidence that they sought to undermine security in Iraq.
"The claim of the government that Baathists have a conspiracy, or would attempt a coup, is a lie," the man identified as Douri said. "It is a part of their de-Baathification project."
Baathists were banned from participating in politics after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam after 24 years in power.
The man said the government had arrested more than 900 people, targeting those on a list of thousands of names that originated with Iran's Quds force, the covert operations arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He also hailed the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
"We are at the doors of a victory in which America, the master of evil, is running away from Iraq dragging the tail of failure and defeat," he said, saying repeatedly that he was speaking from southern Iraq's Wasit province.
Douri served as deputy head of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam.
He took over the Baath Party leadership after Saddam's execution in December 2006. Led by Saddam from 1979-2003, the Baath Party brutally oppressed Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds.
Douri has seldom surfaced since the 2003 invasion. In a statement posted on a Baath Party website in August 2009, he called on Iraqi insurgent groups to move into politics, suggesting a shift away from armed resistance.
He was ranked sixth on the U.S. military's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis and a $10 million reward was offered for his capture. U.S. officials accused him of helping lead the Sunni insurgency that erupted after the invasion.
The United States still has about 30,000 troops in Iraq. They are scheduled to leave by Dec. 31 under a 2008 security pact between the two countries.
(Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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