Iraq ministry confirms arrests of 23 of its officials 
By Campbell Robertson and Tareq Maher

Thursday, December 18, 2008 
BAGHDAD: A senior spokesman at the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior confirmed 
publicly on Thursday that 23 of its officials had been arrested in recent days 
under suspicion of being affiliated with a banned political party related to 
Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The ministry, in a statement, also said the scope 
of the investigation was wider than originally reported, with officials in 
other security ministries also arrested.

But while the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Major General Abdul-Karim 
Khalaf, confirmed the arrests at a news conference, he denied those arrested 
were involved in planning a coup.

According to senior security officials in Baghdad who revealed the arrests 
earlier this week, up to 35 officials in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior 
ranking as high as general have been detained this week.

The arrests, according to those officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, 
included at least three generals. The officials also said that the arrests had 
come at the hand of an elite counterterrorism force that reports directly to 
the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The possible involvement of the counterterrorism unit would speak to the 
seriousness of the accusations, and several officials from the Ministries of 
the Interior and National Security said that some of those arrested were in the 
early stages of planning a coup.

None of the officials provided details about that allegation.

But the arrests reflect a new set of political challenges for Iraq. Maliki, who 
has gained popularity as a strong leader but has few reliable political allies, 
has scrambled to protect himself from domestic rivals as the domineering 
influence of the United States, his leading backer, begins to fade.

Initial accounts provided by Iraqi security officials said that General Ahmed 
Abu Raqeef, the director of internal affairs for the Ministry of the Interior, 
was among those arrested. But that account was wrong; Raqeef is, in fact, part 
of a committee overseeing the investigation of government officials' possible 
links to the Baath Party.

The details of the investigation, including who was leading it, were known to 
few members of the government until Thursday.

Rumors of coups, conspiracies and new alliances abound in the Iraqi capital a 
month before provincial elections. Critics of Maliki say he has been using 
arrests to consolidate power.

But senior security officials have said there was significant evidence tying 
those arrested to a wide array of political corruption charges, including 
affiliation with Al Awda, or the Return, a descendant of the Baath Party, which 
ruled the country as a dictatorship for 35 years, mostly under Saddam. Tens of 
thousands of Iraqis died or were persecuted, including Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, 
by the Baath Party. It was outlawed after the American invasion in 2003.

While most members of the Baath Party were Sunni Muslims, as Saddam was, those 
arrested were a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, several officials said.

A high-ranking Interior Ministry official said that those affiliated with Al 
Awda had paid bribes to other officers to recruit them and that huge amounts of 
money had been found in raids.

He said there could be more arrests. Some of those under arrest belonged to the 
now-illegal party under Saddam's government. Maliki's office declined to 
comment. But one of his advisers, insisting that he not be named because he was 
not authorized to speak, said the detainees were involved in "a conspiracy."

The Ministry of the Interior is dedicated to Iraq's internal security, and 
includes the police forces. The ministry has a history of being heavily 
infiltrated with Shiite militias, though it has improved considerably over the 
past two years.

A police officer, who knows several of the detainees but spoke on condition of 
anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were innocent, longstanding civil 
servants and had little in common with one another. Those who once belonged to 
the Baath Party were lower-level members, he said, insisting that the arrests 
were politically motivated.

Interior Minister Jawad Kadem al-Bolani, who has not been implicated and is out 
of the country, has his own political ambitions and has been expanding his 
secular Iraqi Constitutional Party. Iraq is a nation where leadership has often 
changed by coup, and as next month's provincial elections approach, worry about 
violence is increasing. So are accusations about politically charged detentions.

The counterterrorism unit said to be involved in these arrests is alleged to 
have conducted a raid this summer on the Diyala provincial governor's office, 
during which an employee was killed and a provincial council member, one of the 
few Sunnis Arabs on the council, was arrested.

At a later protest against the arrest, several other Sunni politicians were 
detained. A number of politicians who follow the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, 
and who have set themselves up as political rivals to the prime minister, have 
also been arrested over the past months and charged with terrorist activities.

Anxieties about the government's treatment of political enemies were also 
raised this week as the American military, as part of the recently approved 
security agreement, turned over to Iraqi custody on Monday 39 senior officials 
from the Saddam government. Some have been convicted already and others are 
scheduled to stand trial, the United States military said in a statement.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker, charged that the safety of the prisoners was 
in jeopardy. "I think these people are not going to be treated well and that is 
the American responsibility," he said.

Badeei Araf, a lawyer who said he represented 11 of those being turned over, 
said at least two appeared on the "most wanted" deck of cards that the United 
States publicized early in the invasion in 2003. But, he said, neither Ali 
Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali and awaiting execution, nor Tariq Aziz, 
the public face of the Saddam government, were among those transferred.

On Wednesday, a bomb planted in a minibus exploded near a parking lot belonging 
to an Iraqi traffic police station in the Nadha neighborhood of Baghdad, 
killing up to 18 people and injuring scores, police officials said. Some Iraqi 
officials put the death toll at eight.

A small blast in a market of barbershops and butchers drew people out of their 
homes before the minibus exploded. The attack appeared to be directed at the 
police station; at least three of those killed were police officers.

Also on Wednesday, Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Britain, made a surprise 
appearance at a news conference in Baghdad with Maliki, where he confirmed that 
British forces would end their operations in Iraq by the end of May and would 
withdraw from the country by the end of June.

Correction: December 18, 2008

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that one of the Iraqi 
officials arrested was General Ahmed Abu Raqeef, the Ministry of the Interior's 
director of internal affairs.


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