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.
But he has also angered political opponents as well as allies with his plan to create government-financed tribal support councils that appear designed to enhance his authority in areas where he lacks support.
"He feels stronger but should not forget that he became prime minister because of a concession by other political groups," Othman said. "The people who brought him to power could bring a vote of no-confidence against him."
Adding to the concern of Maliki's critics is his secretive style, a legacy of the days when his Dawa party resisted Hussein's autocratic government. Maliki and his inner circle continue to operate covertly, often without informing their closest allies.
Jalaledin Saghir, a senior lawmaker with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political bloc that is part of Maliki's ruling coalition, said the party had not been notified of the arrests.
"We need more information about this operation to be sure it did not break any laws," Saghir said. "If there were any kind of mistakes, we will speak out at the appropriate time."
The operation's secrecy fueled speculation that a power struggle over the Interior Ministry had erupted between the Dawa party and the Supreme Council. In recent weeks, tensions have grown between the two parties over Maliki's tribal support councils. The ministry is widely believed to be controlled by the Supreme Council and its armed wing, the Badr Organization.
"This operation might have been done for political reasons," said Ahmed al-Masudi, a lawmaker loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who helped bring Maliki to power but has opposed many of his policies. "The Dawa party thinks this is the best time to increase their influence in this ministry."
Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc expressed outrage at the arrests. "It's tension between these two sides. Each side is trying to push each other out," said Saleem Abdullah al-Jubouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, referring to Dawa and the Islamic Council.
Saghir and Majeed said the arrests were not related to a contest for power between the two parties.
Some Shiites have questioned the allegiance of Hussein-era military and police officers who are members of Iraq's current security forces. "There is a fear that some of the commanders are loyal to the Baath Party, so the government is working under this guise, to find a reason for the arrests," Jubouri said.
The Sunni bloc, he said, is waiting to see who was arrested; then it will demand evidence that the detainees were trying to reconstitute the Baath Party. Officials said those arrested included Sunnis and Shiites.
Some Shiite lawmakers applauded the arrests and said they were convinced that those detained were plotting against the government. "We have confirmed information that members of the Baath Party are trying to rearrange and reorganize themselves and are seeking support to achieve their aims," said Samira al-Musawi, a Shiite lawmaker.
On Thursday, some officials in the Interior Ministry expressed concern. "The majority of the officers arrested are Sunnis," said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the comments. "I think this crisis was done for political reasons, especially because it happened before the provincial election."
Other lawmakers said they doubt that any loyalists of the Baath Party could infiltrate the ministry.
"We, who are inside the political process and the government, know that all the important and critical posts inside the Interior Ministry hierarchy are connected to the Iranian intelligence," said Mohammed al-Dayeni, a Sunni member of parliament. "I don't believe any of these charges because I know who is in the Ministry of Interior and who is running it."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Aziz Alwan and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.