BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has arrested at least 240 former members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party and ex-military officers over what some senior officials described as a plot to seize power after U.S. troops withdraw at year's end.
While several officials characterized the round-up which began this week as the foiling of a specific plot, others said it was a precautionary measure before the U.S. withdrawal, nearly nine years after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.
Government officials have long expressed concern that Baathists would try to retake power when U.S. troops depart.
"We have arrested a group belonging to the former Baath party that were planning to launch sabotage actions and revolt to topple the political process in the country after withdrawal of American forces," Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister for intelligence, told Reuters.
After ousting Saddam, U.S. forces dissolved the Iraqi security forces and purged state institutions of members of his Sunni-dominated Baath party, moves that contributed to a bloody Sunni insurgency. Iraq has since tried to bring some Baath party members not accused of major crimes back into public life.
Kamal said intelligence reports indicated that more than 300 suspects were part of a group which had been operating across Iraq, including the provinces of Baghdad, Najaf, Nassiriya, Wasit, Nineveh, Diyala, Kirkuk and Anbar.
"We are still following this dangerous group and we are working to neutralize this network with branches across Iraq," he added, declining to offer any details of the plot.
More than eight years after the invasion and just two months ahead of a complete U.S. withdrawal, Iraq is still grappling with the question of how to deal with the legacy of more than 20 years of Baathist rule. Many Iraqis joined the party just to advance in government positions or avoid trouble with Saddam.
Iraq has passed legislation designed to partially reverse the U.S. decision in 2003 to purge the government of Baath Party members, but some accuse the Shi'ite-led government of stalling its implementation.
Since the round-up of ex-Baathists and former high-ranking army officers started earlier this week, at least 240 people have been arrested, including 33 in Salahuddin province, 33 in Diyala, 60 in Kirkuk, 40 in Basra, eight in Wasit, 27 in Nassiriya and 56 in Babil, senior security officials said.
Security and police officials said a list of around 350 former Baath Party members and their arrest warrants were issued to security agencies by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"We have arrested 33 former members of the Baath Party after receiving intelligence they were organizing clandestine meetings recently," said one local official, Tikrit police Lieutenant Abdulla al-Douri. "It's a precautionary measure to stop any possible moves to restore Baath activities."
"They are now being interrogated in custody, although most of them are old and sick," al-Douri added.
A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government had foiled a plot by a group of former Baath members.
"Intelligence reports revealed that there is a plot organized by the Baath Party to control power after the American withdrawal from Iraq," the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"Who knows? Anything could happen in Iraq," the source said when asked if the ex-Baathists had the ability to retake power. "They still have this dream."
Concerns about the possibility of a coup are partly fed by growing assertiveness from Maliki, a Shi'ite politician who heads a fragile and often fractious coalition government including Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Maliki has sought to consolidate his power as violence drops and the United States narrows its role in Iraq, and some rivals resent or are suspicious of his growing stature.
The United States has about 40,000 troops in Iraq. President Barack Obama said last week that they will be withdrawn by December 31 according to the terms of a 2008 bilateral security pact.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Kareem Raheem in Baghdad; Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit; Aref Mohammed in Basra; Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Jim Loney)