19 Arrested in Plot to Restore Saddam Party in Iraq Released

All those arrested on accusations of conspiring to restore the outlawed Baath party, which ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam Hussein was ousted, have been released, the interior minister said Friday.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that those in custody were released Friday without any charges being filed.

An investigating judge issued "an order to release all of the them because they are innocent," Al-Bolani told The AP, adding there was no evidence they conspired to restore the Baath party.He provided no further details.

Al-Bolani said 19 people were released from custody and that charges will be dismissed against the remaining four who are not in custody. Earlier in the day, al-Bolani told reporters at a news conference that the charges were baseless and were politically motivated by those trying to undermine the interior ministry.

The release of the 19 came just after Iraqi officials began playing down the arrest of the officials from Iraq's three major security ministries.

Earlier, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf told Iraq's al-Sharqiya Television that a number of people had been detained following a tip that they were members of al-Awda, or "Return," a Sunni underground organization founded in 2003 to try to restore Saddam and the Baath party to power.

"So far charges have not been raised against anybody," he told the station, saying that it was normal to detain people when matters of national security were involved. He had earlier denied reports they may have been involved in a coup plot against the government.

"Such a behavior is not confined to Iraq only, it may happen anywhere in the world. When an issue threatens the security of a country, measures like the ones we did would be taken," he said, adding that they were being questioned.

"So far, none of them have been proven guilty, and no charge has been raised against them. During the next two or three days, I expect the outcome of the investigation would be disclosed, and we will announce it to the public in a transparent manner," he said.

Few details about those arrested were ever released, but it was difficult to see how the group could represent a serious threat to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, especially with nearly 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The Baath party was banned following Saddam's ouster. The party was founded in Damascus, Syria, in the 1940s as a secular, socialist Arab nationalist movement, and its ranks once included a number of Arab Christian intellectuals.

Later the party split along national lines, and it still rules in Syria.

The Baath Party ruled Iraq 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.