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Iraqi Officials Reportedly Arrested Over Coup Plot

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- About 35 officials have been arrested at Iraq's Interior Ministry, some accused of planning a coup, "The New York Times" has reported, citing senior security officials in Baghdad.

The arrests over the past three days were carried out by an elite counterterrorism force reporting directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the newspaper said in its December 18 edition.

Iraqi officials could not confirm nor deny the report, but Interior Ministry insiders were skeptical about the likelihood of a coup, a possibility increasingly raised in recent weeks by U.S. and Iraqi officials as al-Maliki consolidates his leadership.

Al-Maliki, a Shi'ite politician who heads a fragile coalition government including Sunni Arabs and Kurds, has grown more assertive in recent months as security improves sharply and the United States prepares to draw down its role in Iraq.

An Interior Ministry brigadier general, speaking to Reuters, said some of the raids targeted the Baghdad traffic police, unlikely to be associated with serious coup attempts.

One of those arrested was a brigadier general who heads a traffic police unit and another was a senior security officer at the Interior Ministry. The ministry official said 15 people were arrested out of an initial list of 45.

"I am the spokesman of the Defense Ministry and the first I've heard of this is from you," Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammad al-Askari said.

Neither government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh nor a spokesman for the Interior Ministry could be reached.

Significant Evidence

The "Times" reported that senior security officials said there was significant evidence tying those arrested to Al-Awda, a group accused of working to reconstitute the Ba'ath Party of late Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.

The newspaper quoted a high-ranking Interior Ministry official as saying those affiliated with Al-Awda had paid bribes to other officers to recruit them and that huge amounts of money had been found in the raids.

The Interior Ministry source told Reuters he could not judge the coup accusations but he noted charging people with being Ba'athists was the simplest way to remove them as a threat. Many people in the ministry used to be low-level Ba'ath Party members.

U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that Iraqi officials have a history of using arrests to consolidate power.

Iraq holds provincial elections next month that could reshape the political map of the country as sectarian violence begins to ease more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion.

One police officer told the "Times" he knew several of the detainees and that they were innocent. They were long-standing civil servants and had little in common with one another, the officer said, according to the paper.