BAGHDAD At least 23 officers from Iraq's interior and defence ministries have been arrested on suspicion of trying to rebuild former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party, spokesmen said on Thursday.
Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf said the officers were arrested under suspicion of being part of the al-Awda ("Return") party, seen as a new incarnation of the once omnipotent Baath party that was outlawed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"They are now being interrogated under the supervision of the Iraqi judiciary," Khalaf told Reuters. He said being a member of al-Awda was equivalent to being a Baath member.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that an elite counterterrorism force, reporting directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, arrested up to 35 officials, some of whom were accused of plotting a coup against the government.
Khalaf said 16 of 23 arrested were from the Interior Ministry. The office of the general commander said 24 officers were arrested, including several from the Defence Ministry.
Khalaf ridiculed speculation about a coup, pointing to the thousands of Iraqi forces on patrol against insurgents in Baghdad which he said would stamp on any attempted putsch.
"Suggesting there is a coup going on in Iraq is like saying an ant is going out to arrest an elephant," he said.
He said no special forces were involved in the arrest of the officials, who ranked as high as brigadier general.
Brigadier-General Alaa al-Taei, the ministry's head of public relations, said those arrested were not accused of plotting a coup, but instead were suspected of planning to burn down the ministry, possibly to destroy evidence against them.
The report of an alleged coup plot made instant ripples in Iraq, where leaders have come to power in military coups at least three times in less than a century of history as a nation.
Fears of a coup are partly fed by growing assertiveness from Maliki, a Shi'ite Arab politician who heads a fragile and often fractious coalition government including Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Maliki has sought to consolidate his power as violence drops and the United States begins to narrow its role in Iraq more than five years after it invaded, and some rivals resent or are suspicious about his growing stature.
Political tension is sharpening ahead of local elections in January that will be a proving ground for rival factions.
Being a member of the Baath party has been a politically charged issue since U.S. authorities made disbanding the party their first official act in Iraq in 2003.
Iraq has reversed some of the purges of Baath party members, which decimated Iraqi bureaucracy, but it is still banned.
Both analysts and politicians cast doubt on whether a coup had truly been in the offing.
"A coup at this time would need to be done in full view of the Americans," Wafeeq al-Samarraie, former security adviser to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told Al Jazeera television.
"There are obviously still people who are very disaffected by the current situation and the current regime, (but) I think it is very unlikely they would have any short-term plans to carry out a coup. There is no way they could succeed," said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The Times report cited an 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.
Another source within the Interior Ministry said the arrests were related to accusations of corruption, and said most of them were members of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a rival Shi'ite member of Maliki's coalition government.
(Additional reporting by Joanne Allen in Washington and Aseel Kami and Wisam Mohammed in Baghdad; Writing by Missy Ryan and Joanne Allen; Editing by Michael Christie)