By Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 -- At least 34 Iraqi security officials inside Iraq's Interior Ministry have been arrested, possibly in connection with corruption and working to rebuild an illegal party formed by supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, according to several ministry officials.
Those arrested, both Sunnis and Shiites, include high-ranking generals at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's police and other security services. Most of those arrested -- at least 17 -- were members of the traffic police, including the general who leads the department, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Also arrested was the general who led the ministry's internal affairs department and another who dealt with internal security inside the ministry. The arrests were made by a special counterterrorism task force that reports to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the officials said.
It was unclear precisely why the officials were arrested. Some said it was because they were involved in corruption involving the issuing of fake documents and car license plates. Others described a more diabolical plot to resurrect al-Awda, or the Return, a party composed of Hussein's loyalists that has been banned by the government. "It's a political group to resist against the government," said an Interior Ministry officer.
Also unknown was whether the officials were trying to plot the overthrow of Maliki, who has been trying to cement his power in recent months, raising tensions with various political parties. At least six additional officials were being sought for arrest, the officials said.
The New York Times first reported the arrests on its Web site.
The developments came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a visit to Iraq, confirmed that British troops would withdraw from Iraq before June, virtually ending the role of the United States' most important coalition ally in Iraq.
"The role of U.K. in Iraq is about to end and British forces will finish their missions within the first part of 2009, then they will leave the country," Brown said Wednesday in a joint statement with Maliki.
Brown told reporters that the 4,100 British troops still in the country, down from the 46,000 who participated during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, would end their mission "no later than 31st May." British military officials said a few hundred troops would remain in Iraq beyond that day to train and advise Iraqi forces.
Maliki thanked British troops "for the efforts they have made in getting rid of dictatorship and terrorism. They have made a lot of sacrifices."
The announcement came as two bombs exploded near a Baghdad traffic police station, killing 18 people and injuring 52, police said. The U.S. military said nine people died and 43 were wounded in the attack.
Wednesday's bombings occurred in Baghdad's Nahda enclave. An explosive charge detonated about 11:30 a.m. and was followed minutes later by a car bomb near the traffic police station. The bomb exploded as people were lined up to pay traffic tickets, said witnesses and police. At least two traffic policemen were killed and five were injured, police said.
The explosion left a crater and damaged homes, shops nearby and at least 15 cars.
Witnesses said the first explosion appeared designed to lure traffic policemen outside their station. When the officers came out, the car bomb detonated.
A police commander at the scene confiscated the notebook of a Washington Post special correspondent and ordered him to leave the area, saying, "We get nothing from journalists but shoes."
The remark was in reference to Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who hurled two shoes at President Bush during a news conference Sunday. A judge visited Zaidi inside his jail cell Wednesday to take a statement, according to an Iraqi judicial official.
Iraqi lawmakers argued during a parliamentary session Wednesday over whether Zaidi should be released from jail.
Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani angrily declared: "I have no honor leading this parliament and I announce my resignation." It wasn't clear if Mashhadani supported Zaidi's release.