General and Iraqi officials held over 'Baathist coup plot'

Arrests may be a way to shore up Maliki for elections as US prepares to reduce presence

Up to 25 officials are under arrest at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, some accused of plotting a coup and trying to bring back the Baath party of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi government sources said.

Those detained over the past three days by a counter-terrorism unit which answers directly to the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, include a brigadier-general, though many of the others arrested are low-level officials.

It is unlikely that there has been any serious attempt to stage a coup and the arrests may be part of an effort by Mr Maliki to strengthen his position before the provincial elections next month and the parliamentary election later in the year.

The reports of the arrests are evidence of a struggle for power in Baghdad in the lead up to the end of the US occupation under the newly signed Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) under which US troops will leave cities, towns and villages by the middle of next year and all of Iraq by the end of 2011. Iraqi political parties and their leaders believe that the coming elections and the US military withdrawal will determine who becomes the long-term rulers of Iraq.

The evidence that some of those arrested were at the beginning of plotting a coup is vague and unconvincing, particularly since some belonged to the Baghdad traffic police. The alleged plotters were said to have joined a group called al-Awda or the Return which hopes to restore the Baath party that held power in Iraq from 1968 to 2003. The leadership of the Baath party was primarily Sunni Arab and it was tightly controlled by Saddam Hussein and his extended family and clan from in and around the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq. Since the US invasion, there has been a seismic shift in Iraqi politics and power is now held by the Shia Islamic parties allied to the Kurdish parties. The Baath party itself has been proscribed.

Mr Maliki has been trying to consolidate his power by looking to senior members of the state bureaucracy and the armed forces. His problem is that he leads al-Dawa, one of the smaller Shia religious parties, and that ministerial positions are allocated to members of the coalition he leads. This means he cannot easily remove ministers. The Prime Minister has also angered his coalition partners, notably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, by trying to set up state-funded tribal councils to compete for power in the Iraqi provinces.

There have been many rumours of the coups being plotted in recent months, though it is doubtful if the army is sufficiently united for such an attempt to be made. At the same time, there is widespread disillusionment with the civilian government among ordinary Iraqis because of the continuing high levels of violence, corruption, unemployment and failure to restore essential services such as electricity and clean water. Many people would be sympathetic to a strong military leader who could provide effective government.

The Shia government has sought since 2005 to take control of powerful ministries, notably the Interior and Defence Ministries, away from survivors of the old Baathist regime and from the US. Nevertheless, senior officials with experience will almost certainly have belonged to the Baath party before 2003 when membership was obligatory.

Mr Maliki has gained in popularity this year because of his successful confrontation with the Shia militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, which had previously controlled much of Basra and Baghdad, and by refusing to sign the Sofa until the US had agreed unconditionally to withdraw.

He has so far retained US support which kept him in power a year ago when his Iraqi political allies considered deposing him. But as America pulls out he will become more isolated, and the arrests yesterday may be Mr Maliki’s attempt to consolidate his power while he still can.

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