Arrests in Iraq Seen as Politically Motivated

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 19, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 -- Iraqi politicians said Thursday that the arrests of government officials accused of supporting a group linked to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was an attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to demonstrate his power.

Members of parliament charged Thursday that the prime minister was using Iraq's security forces to instill fear in his rivals ahead of provincial elections set for next month. Critics noted pointedly that a special counterterrorism task force that reports to Maliki made the arrests.

"Forces under the direct control of the prime minister engaged in these arrests. This is not something normal in a democratic process," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni lawmaker.

Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said members of Iraq's political establishment believe the arrests "may be politically motivated and used as a force to get votes."

Yaseen Majeed, Maliki's top media adviser, said the arrests were no different from previous efforts to eliminate corruption in the Interior Ministry. "The prime minister has strong support from all Iraqis. He does not need these kinds of operations to gain more power," Majeed said.

On Thursday, senior government officials continued to provide contradictory explanations for the detentions.

Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, deputy interior minister for intelligence affairs, said in an interview that those arrested had no links to the Baath Party and described media reports about such links as "propaganda" and "entirely baseless."

"The number of officers who are being investigated is small and not worthy of mention," said Kamal, declining to provide a reason for the arrests.

But Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the senior spokesman at the Interior Ministry, told reporters Thursday that 23 of the ministry's officials were in custody under suspicion of being members of al-Awda, or the Return, a banned political party with links to the Baath Party. Khalaf, who said the probe might lead to more arrests, denied that those arrested were plotting a coup. Interior Ministry officials said at least 34 people had been arrested, including several generals and officials of other agencies.

Majeed, the media adviser to Maliki, said those detained -- his number was 24 -- were affiliated with al-Awda and included officers who he said were helping insurgent and criminal groups. Most of them, he added, were traffic police officers. Earlier, other Interior Ministry officials had said the officers were arrested on suspicion of forging documents and license plates to bring cars into Iraq illegally.

"They are from different groups and helping different kinds of insurgents," Majeed said.

Maliki has steadily consolidated his power this year. In March, he ordered the military to combat Shiite militias and assert government control over the southern city of Basra, a goal that Iraqi forces accomplished with help from the U.S.-led coalition. Since then, Maliki has sought to tighten his grip across the country. His brokering of a U.S-Iraq security pact that requires the American forces to withdraw by the end of 2011 has bolstered his popularity among many Iraqis.

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