A senior Iraqi official who oversaw the purging of Saddam Hussein loyalists from government jobs has been arrested for his activities in connection with a violent Shiite Muslim militia, his political backers and supporters said.
Ali Lami was detained Wednesday by U.S. forces at Baghdad’s airport as he arrived from Lebanon, said Iyad Kadhim Sabti, a spokesman for the committee that removed members of Hussein’s Baath Party from the government.
Lami has served as executive director of the committee, chaired by Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, that was formed to ensure that high-ranking Baathists did not hold influential roles or try to take back power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. military declined to confirm Lami’s arrest but released a statement late Wednesday saying that American forces waiting at the airport had detained a “suspected senior special groups leader” after his plane landed.
“Special groups” is the term the United States uses for offshoots of the Mahdi Army militia that allegedly have received money, arms and training from Iran. U.S. military intelligence officials have described the special groups as retaining close ties to the regular Mahdi Army, loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Senior Shiite officials in Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government contacted Thursday said that they were not familiar with Lami. Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, who worked with Lami in 2003 on Iraq’s interim governing council, declined to comment when asked about the arrest.
The U.S. military statement said the detained man was thought to be responsible for a June 24 bombing at a district advisory council office in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood that killed six Iraqis and four Americans -- two State Department employees and two U.S. soldiers.
A senior U.S. military official said the U.S. Army believed the bombing was prompted by a council plan to vote out its chief, who was a member of the Sadr movement. The military statement said the suspect traveled regularly to Iran and Lebanon “to meet and help run the Iranian-backed special groups.”
Lami’s arrest had the apparent backing of Iraqi security forces, who confirmed it, but also did not name him.
The Shiite official has been a pivotal figure in Iraqi politics since January 2004, when he was appointed to the de-Baathification commission, where he earned a reputation for tough enforcement.
The ouster of the Baathists, many of them highly educated professionals, has been one of the most divisive issues in Iraq since the invasion.
Iraq’s parliament passed legislation in January aimed at restoring some rights of former lower-level Baathists, but critics charged that the law changed only the commission’s name and kept its old members in place. The law also included provisions to expel former high-ranking Baathists brought back to serve in the security ministries, the Foreign Ministry and the judiciary.
After the new law was approved, Lami risked alienating Iraq’s ruling Shiite establishment by hinting that he might try to force out Shiites who had been Baathists and were now serving in top positions in security. He told The Times in February that some senior military and police officers, who were Shiites, could be purged.
He named as possibilities the head of the national police, Gen. Hussein Awadi, who is close to the Americans, and Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander for Baghdad’s security plan.
He also said Sherwan Waili, the minister of state for national security, was under investigation. Lami, who says he was imprisoned by Hussein from 1991 to 2003, defended his role and said he had in fact reinstated former Baathists since the commission was founded.
Chalabi, an advocate of the invasion and a onetime confidant of the Bush administration, reacted angrily to news of the arrest.
Lami, he said, “played a major role in the commission work and making it a real force that supports national reconciliation in Iraq.” He accused U.S. forces of working with a security company to arrest Lami.
Mithal Alusi, who served with Lami as a co-director of the de-Baathification commission in 2004, said that allegations of Lami’s involvement in Shiite militia activities had been floating around for at least two years. He also said that there had been reports that Lami had threatened government employees with removal if they didn’t pay him money.
Alusi described Lami as Chalabi’s go-between with the Sadr movement and said he ran an office for Chalabi in Sadr City.
“He is clearly connected to corruption and killings,” Alusi said, referring to Lami. “He is from the Mahdi Army and he is also with Chalabi and probably Chalabi thought through him he could win some of their support.”
Colleague Sabti denied that Lami had worked for Chalabi in Sadr City and disputed Alusi’s account. Sadr official Haidar Tarfi confirmed that Lami was close to the Sadr movement but said he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
The Shiite-led government once protected officials like Lami, but in the last year, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has fallen out with the Sadr movement, which on Thursday declared an indefinite extension of a cease-fire for the Mahdi militia. His relations with Chalabi also are thought to be tense. Such a political climate may have allowed for Lami’s arrest.
In Baghdad, the military reported the deaths of two U.S. soldiers, one in a roadside bombing Thursday and one from a gunshot wound suffered Wednesday. The deaths brought to at least 4,149 the number of American troops who have died in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, according to icasualties.org.
Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Usama Redha in Baghdad contributed to this report.