BAGHDAD (AP) – More than 20 employees of Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior have been arrested on allegations that they were plotting to revive Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, government officials said Thursday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf told reporters that 23 people had been arrested over the past five days but he dismissed suggestions they were plotting a coup.
Another security official put the figure at 25 and said a brigadier general in the traffic police was the highest-ranking figure. Most are low-level ministry employees, he said.
The official, who has access to the investigative file, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter to the media. A third security official said those in custody were believed to have links to al-Awad, or “Return,” a Sunni
underground organization founded in 2003 to try to restore Saddam and the Baath party to power. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information. But Khalaf denied that the group had links to al-Awad. The U.S. military referred all inquiries to the Iraqi government.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution bans the Baath party and any group that uses its symbols and ideology “regardless of the name that it adopts.”
Some Iraqi politicians also expressed doubt that the plotters were actively trying to overthrow the government. “I think talking about a coup is an exaggeration,” Abbas al-Bayati, a senior lawmaker of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the largest Shiite party, told Al-Arabiya television. He described those arrested as “a semi-organized group” but said the fact that they were trying to restore the Baath party pointed to shortcomings in Iraqi security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The Baath Party ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam’s regime was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Outlawing the Baath party was the first official act of the U.S.-run occupation authority which ruled until June 2004. The purge of thousands of Baath party members from government jobs cost the country the services of skilled people who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies.
In February, Iraq’s presidency council issued a new law that allowed lower-ranking former Baath party members to reclaim government jobs.
The measure was thought to affect about 38,000 members of Saddam’s political apparatus, giving them a chance to go back to government jobs. It would also allow those who have reached retirement age to claim government pensions.