Iraq Downplays Reports That Arrests Were Over Government Coup Plot

Iraq's Ministry of Interior is downplaying published reports that 23 people — including four generals — were arrested in an alleged secret plot to restore to power Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

The raids reportedly took place over the past three days and were carried out by an elite counterterrorism force that reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to the New York Times.

Ministry sources tell FOX News that the raids may have been related to an anti-corruption operation.

One of the men arrested, Gen. Ahmed Abu Raqeef, is the ministry’s director of internal affairs, The Times reported.

Senior security officials told the Times there was significant evidence tying those arrested to Al Awda, or the "Return," a descendant of the Baath Party, which ruled the nation for 35 years, primarily under Hussein.

A high-ranking interior ministry official reportedly said 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.

Other interior ministry sources are quoted as saying the were related to anti-corruption efforts, not a coup attempt.

Critics of al-Maliki accuse him of using the arrests to consolidate power a month ahead of provincial elections, The Times reported.

One police officer, who knows several of the detainees, said they were innocent, were long-standing civil servants and had little in common with one another, the paper reported.

Some Iraqi politicians also expressed doubt that the plotters were 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.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis died or were persecuted, including al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, by the Baath Party. It was outlawed after the U.S. 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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.