Unit reporting to Iraqi PM arrests dozens of officials in Iraq's Interior Ministry ahead of January’s elections.
BAGHDAD - Iraq has arrested almost 40 policemen accused of plotting a coup against the Shiite-led government and bringing Saddam Hussein's old party back into power, a senior interior ministry official said on Thursday.
"Thirty traffic policemen and seven police charged with security at the interior ministry have been detained for an attempted coup," the official said on condition of anonymity.
He denied initial information that the ministry's intelligence chief General Ahmad Abul Raghif was among those held, saying that on the contrary, it was his service which carried out the arrests.
The interior ministry, meanwhile, said members of other security-linked ministries were among those arrested.
Earlier, a security official had announced the arrest of 50 interior ministry staff including senior officials over the plot against the government headed by Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"They were linked to the Al-Awda (The Return), a clandestine group that was working to bring the Baath Party back into power," the official said.
Al-Awda first surfaced in June 2003 just three months after the launch of the US-led invasion.
It groups former members of the Baath party, Saddam's former elite Republican Guard and his security services, which were dismantled in the aftermath of the war.
General Abul Raghif accused regional countries of involvement.
"We have taken very serious measures to counter the influence of regional countries which are hostile to Iraq and seek to damage our security, especially the interior ministry," he said.
News of the arrests comes just days after a farewell visit to Iraq by US President George W. Bush, who met Maliki during his trip.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that a top interior ministry official said those linked to Al-Awda paid bribes to officers to recruit them, and that substantial amounts of money were found in raids.
Reacting to the alleged coup, Selim Abullah, spokesman for Sunni party the Iraqi Concord Front, said his group had not been given any "clear explanation on the arrests or on the people arrested."
Liwaa Smaissim, head of the political office of Moqtada al-Sadr, was sceptical.
"We are under occupation and it's impossible to believe in this type of story unless the coup was supported by the occupiers who want to change the regime," he said.
Maliki's critics have accused the prime minister of arresting political enemies to consolidate his power ahead of provincial elections due to be held at the end of January, the New York Times said.
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