Iraqi government plays down arrests of 23 police officers

BAGHDAD — Twenty-three mostly low-ranking police and security officials were detained this week as part of an investigation into attempts to revive Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party, government officials said Thursday.

Some news reports said the officers were trying to organize a coup to unseat Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, but National Police Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf dismissed that as an "unreal" possibility. He said Maliki has direct role in security, and it would be difficult for an officer to stage a coup.

"The situation on the ground won't allow them to make it," Khalaf told Iraqi television. "The coup is unreal because the officers are from low ranks and traffic police. They have no power . . . No unit can move from place to place without the order of Maliki."

The officers are alleged to have been affiliated with the Awda Party, which shares the principles of Saddam's Baath Party as well as some members. The Baath party, which had been run largely by Iraqi Sunnis, is outlawed, and its highest-ranking officials are barred from holding government jobs.

Other news reports said those apprehended as part of the investigation included general officers, but Khalaf and his deputies sought to play down the news reports throughout the day.

"The media exaggerate the news about detaining the officers," Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said.

Friends and advisers have described Maliki, who heads a Shiite coalition government, as preoccupied with concern about a coup. He spent decades as an exile in Iran and Syria from Saddam and the Baath Party during the dictator's rein.

Members of parliament said they were told that the detained officers had gotten involved with politics.

"All the employees of the Ministry of Information, the army and security forces must not work or deal with politicians; otherwise they will be fired," said Kurdish lawmaker Muhsin al Sadoon.

Iraq's parliament dissolved temporarily Thursday after a heated discussion about the status of the journalist who threw two shoes at President George W. Bush at a news conference Sunday.

Meanwhile, Muntather al Zaidi, the journalist, was reported to have apologized for his outburst and asked Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for a pardon, Iraqi television reported.

Zaidi has been in custody since Sunday night, when he disrupted a press conference Bush and Maliki held to mark a security agreement that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2012.

Parliament speaker Mahmoud al Mashhdani threatened to resign at one point during Wednesday's debate over Zaidi's status. Anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr's party pressed Zaidi's case.

Mashhdani "uttered some words which are not fit for a chairman against parliament members, saying that he can't head a parliament like that," Sadoon said.

Mashhdani's colleagues refused to convene when they saw him return to parliament on Thursday, several of them said.

Sadoon said he expects the political parties to accept Mashhdani's resignation Saturday, after which they'd appoint a new parliament leader.

Others aren't so sure that Mashhdani will step down.

"We can't rely on Mashhdani's speech that he would resign," said Sunni lawmaker Omar Abdul Sattar. "He made that threat more than once. He is an emotional man."

(Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)


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