Iraq: no charges for officers held over conspiracy

BAGHDAD Sat Dec 20, 2008 10:13am EST

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Interior Ministry will not charge a group of its officers arrested earlier this week on suspicion of links to al-Awda, a reincarnation of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party, an official said on Saturday.

Interior Ministry spokesman, Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf, said the men had returned to their homes after being freed.

"They are qualified, patriotic officers and they will return to their jobs with their heads held high. The Interior Ministry will honor the released officers in order to compensate for damages to their dignity in recent days," he said.

A report earlier this week that a possible coup plot lay behind the arrests of officers from the defense and interior ministries, including traffic police, kicked off a flurry of denials in Baghdad.

The reasons given by different officials for the two dozen arrests varied widely, but most said the detained men had been accused of being members of al-Awda, which they said would amount to being a Baathist and therefore a crime.

Khalaf did not say whether the Defense Ministry officers were also released or whether they would be charged.

In a news conference on Friday night, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said political machinations were to blame and pointed to unnamed parties he said had been sidelined at the ministry, but he did not name names.

Other officials have said the arrests could be related to politicking within Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's shaky coalition government ahead of important provincial elections that take place next month in most of Iraq.

Politicians are jockeying for position before the vote, which may set the tone for parliamentary polls late next year. The vote could also mark a shift from confrontations between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, which triggered widespread bloodshed after 2003, to increasing struggles for supremacy among Shi'ite factions.

Maliki's Dawa party will face off against other Shi'ite parties and Bolani's recently formed Constitutional Party.

"The issue of the 'Return Party,', or al-Awda party, is a joke. And some of them are traffic cops. So it's also a joke to say they had the military power to take over," said Mustafa al-Ani, an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

"I think we are going to have a lot of parties trying to eliminate each other or take power from each other (ahead of the election)," Ani said.

There are also conflicting reports about who arrested the men -- the Interior Ministry or, according to some reports, a special force reporting directly to Maliki.

Khalaf did not say who first raised suspicions against the officers, but said the ministry would press charges against them.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Mike Christie and Katie Nguyen)