WORLD> Middle East
Iraq arrests dozens over coup plot: officials
Updated: 2008-12-18 22:16

BAGHDAD -- Iraq has arrested almost 40 policemen accused of plotting a coup against the Shiite-led government and bringing Saddam Hussein's old party back into power, a senior interior ministry official said on Thursday.

Provincial election posters advertising Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's political list are plastered on a wall in central Baghdad. Iraq has arrested about 50 interior ministry officials for plotting a coup against the Shiite-led government, a senior Iraqi security official said on Thursday. [Agencies]

"Thirty traffic policemen and seven police charged with security at the interior ministry have been detained for an attempted coup," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He denied initial information that the ministry's intelligence chief General Ahmad Abul Raghif was among those detained, saying that on the contrary, it was his service which carried out the arrests.

Earlier, a security official had announced the arrest of 50 interior ministry staff including senior officials over the plot against the government headed by Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"They were linked to the Al-Awda (The Return), a clandestine group that was working to bring the Baath Party back into power," the official said.

Al-Awda first surfaced in June 2003 just three months after the launch of the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and his feared ruling Baath Party regime.

It groups former members of the Baath party, Saddam's former elite Republican Guard and his security services, which were dismantled in the aftermath of the war.

News of the arrests comes just days after a farewell visit to Iraq by US President George W. Bush, who met with Maliki during his trip.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that a top interior ministry official said those Al-Awda links paid bribes to officers to recruit them, and that substantial amounts of money were found in raids.

Maliki's critics have accused the prime minister of arresting political enemies to consolidate his power ahead of provincial elections due to be held at the end of January, the newspaper said.

Maliki himself was persecuted by Saddam's Sunni-led regime, but five years after the invasion hundreds of members of the executed former Baath party have returned to public life.

It followed the approval in January of a controversial law to allow the return of certain former Baathists to government posts.

The initiative was seen as a way to unite Iraq's rival factions, and a means to reverse what is widely seen as one of the huge blunders committed by the US occupiers in post-Saddam Iraq.

The decision by then head of the US adminstration Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army and sack all Baathists from the government to eradicate Saddam's influence led to the rise of a deadly insurgency that has since claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Maliki, 58, a conservative Shiite Islamist, became the head of Iraq's first permanent post-invasion government in May 2006.

From 2003-2004, he had served on a de-Baathification committee to rid the country's government and civil service of supporters of Saddam, who was executed in December 2006 over the killing of Shiite villages during his rule.

However, the committee quickly earned the reputation of being overzealous and it purged thousands of people who had only joined the Baath party in order to climb up the career ladder.