Arrests at Iraqi Ministry Based on a ‘Big Lie,' Interior Chief Says

Iraqis in Baghdad raise their shoes as hundreds demand the release of journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush.
Iraqis in Baghdad raise their shoes as hundreds demand the release of journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 20, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 19 -- Iraq's interior minister on Friday angrily dismissed reports that a group of officials from his ministry was plotting to overthrow the government and said the arrests of the men were politically motivated.

"It is a big lie. The public must understand this," Jawad al-Bolani told reporters at a news conference, referring to the accusations against the men. "It was clearly motivated by politics and was not related to security."

Bolani's comments came a day after an Interior Ministry spokesman announced the arrests of 23 of the ministry's officials, as well as some from other security ministries, on suspicion of attempting to reconstitute Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which was banned after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

On Friday, the ministry's director of internal affairs said the officials would be released within days. "We will release them very soon," Gen. Ahmed Abu Raqeef said in an interview. A national police official said the men could be released within 48 hours.

If true, that would raise questions about why the arrests were made in the first place. Critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have described them as a move to gain an advantage ahead of next month's crucial provincial elections, which could alter Iraq's political balance of power. Maliki's aides have denied those accusations.

The prime minister and his Dawa party are facing competition from other Shiite parties vying for influence in Iraq's predominantly Shiite oil-rich south. His rivals now include Bolani, an independent Shiite, who recently founded his own political party.

"I am in charge, and anyone thinking of trying to harm the ministry and its men has to face me," Bolani said Friday. "I do not rule out that 'outside hands' were involved in this case."

Meanwhile, a judge announced an investigation into the beating of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi moments after he threw two shoes at President Bush last Sunday at a news conference in Baghdad's Green Zone. The judge, Dhia al-Kinani, told the Associated Press that Zaidi had bruises on his face, including around his eyes.

An Iraqi court official confirmed that Kinani had ordered a probe and that he had asked for the names of all the guards who wrestled Zaidi to the ground after he threw the shoes. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Kinani could not be reached for comment.

Zaidi has been jailed since the attack and has not been seen by his relatives. His brother Oday has alleged that Zaidi has been physically abused, but police and government officials have denied that. On Friday, Zaidi's brothers and other relatives demonstrated outside the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

Muntadar al-Zaidi, who has become a hero across the Arab world, could face a charge of insulting a visiting foreign leader, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Kinani confirmed that Zaidi had written a letter of apology to Maliki. The prime minister's spokesman, Yaseen Majeed, said Thursday that in the letter, Zaidi had asked for a pardon. Kinani told the Associated Press that the Zaidi case would be sent to criminal court Sunday and that a court date would be set within seven to 10 days.

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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