Arrests show fears of Saddam followers

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BAGHDAD (AP) -- The arrests of more than 20 security officials for allegedly trying to revive Saddam Hussein's banned political party show how the Shiite-led government believes that supporters of the old regime still pose a threat - perhaps as much as al-Qaida or Iranian-backed militias.

Iraqi officials said Thursday that up to 25 people from the three major security ministries have been arrested over the past week on accusations of conspiring to restore the Baath party, whose exiled leaders staunchly oppose the current government.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf dismissed a report in The New York Times that the conspirators were planning a coup. He called the report "nonsense" and "baseless." Other prominent Shiites made similar remarks and said the group appeared to be loosely organized.

Another security official said most of those arrested were from the traffic department of the Interior Ministry and that the highest-ranking figure was a brigadier general. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk to media.

The Times quoted an unidentified high-ranking Interior Ministry official as saying that security officials had paid bribes to recruit followers and that huge amounts of money had been found in raids.

But with so few details confirmed, 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.

Some Iraqi politicians speculated the move was part of campaign to bolster al-Maliki's power before two key elections next year - at the expense of Sunnis and secular figures.

"I demand the government stop this matter," Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq said of the investigation. "It's a fabrication."

Western officials have said privately that al-Maliki fears that Iraqi military officers may some day attempt to seize power and has moved to tighten his control of the ministries that run the army and police.

Even a hint of a Baathist role in a conspiracy would raise alarm bells.

Some U.S. military officers have said the Iraqi government still considers former regime supporters a major threat because they have more supporters not only here but elsewhere in the Arab world than al-Qaida or Shiite extremist groups allegedly backed by Iran.

Despite widespread public revulsion over Saddam's rule, Baath party ideals of secularism and Arab unity still resonate with many Iraqis - even though the Iraqi constitution bans the movement "and its symbols, regardless of the name that it adopts."

It's unclear whether any underground Baathist organization would have the power to launch a coup, especially without the support of senior army commanders.

However, Iraqi officials have alleged for years that key Baathists were bankrolling Sunni insurgents from havens in Syria and other Arab countries. Those Baathists could, in theory anyway, provide the money for such a move.

Before it came to power in Iraq in 1968, the Baath party had a long history as an underground organization. Although most members have little firsthand experience from that era, there is considerable institutional knowledge in its ranks about how to organize and build support beneath the radar.

Fears of a Baath party revival run deep within the majority Shiite community, especially among key figures in the religious parties. Many of their followers were arrested, tortured and executed by the Sunni-dominated regime.

Al-Maliki himself fled to Iran and Syria, returning only after Saddam's rule ended.

The Baath party ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam was ousted in 2003. 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.

Outlawing the Baath party was the first official act of the U.S.-run occupation authority which governed the country until June 2004. The purge of thousands of Baath party members from government jobs cost Iraq the services of skilled people who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies.

The Baathist purge and the decision to disband the Iraqi army are widely seen as the major reasons why the insurgency grew rapidly among Iraq's Sunnis, who believed they no longer had a future in the new Iraq.

Last February, a law was enacted allowing 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 at government jobs. It would also allow those who have reached retirement age to claim government pensions.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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