Iraqi authorities have arrested up to 35 police officials in recent days, accusing them of conspiring against the government, officials in the Interior Ministry said today.
The men are accused of belonging to Al Awda, or the Return, an offshoot of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party that has been active in the country’s insurgency. As many as six generals in the Interior Ministry were detained in the raids, the officials said.
The police officials said the raids were carried out by a special Baghdad army unit that reports back to the office of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and is based in the Green Zone, the fortified enclave of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Western officials have described Maliki, a religious Shiite, as deeply suspicious of a coup by Iraqi security officers, many of whom are secular and nostalgic for the old Iraqi army. The prime minister has long sought to consolidate his power and control of the army and police. All security forces now report back to his office.
In the past, Shiite political parties have used the allegations of membership in the Baath Party to purge senior Iraqi officers from the Interior and Defense ministries. Many of those expulsions have been considered cover to settle political or personal scores.
The reports of the raids came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that his nation’s forces would withdraw from Iraq by the end of July, leaving the United States as the only major foreign military presence in the country.
The British withdrawal of its remaining 4,100 troops had been long expected. The forces will cease operations by May 31 to begin their exit. Britain might later send soldiers to train Iraqi forces if the Iraqi government requests it.
At least 178 British troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The British presence has grown increasingly unpopular at home, becoming a liability to the Labor Party under Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.
When Brown became prime minister in 2007, he made it clear that he planned to greatly reduce the number of British troops in Iraq. His initial plan, to bring the number down to about 2,500 by the end of last year and to withdraw completely by the end of 2008, stalled after an Iraqi army offensive prompted major clashes with Shiite Muslim militias last spring in the southern city of Basra, where the British contingent is based.
Southern Iraq has quieted down since then and Iraqi police officers and soldiers now patrol the region, which is home to strategic oil reserves and the country’s sole ports.
Brown and Prime Minister Maliki, at a news conference during Brown’s visit, said that violence had declined in the south and that Iraqi security forces were now better equipped to stand on their own.
But as Brown made his unannounced visit, nine people were killed in a pair of bombings in the center of the city. At least 43 people were injured when a car bomb and a roadside bomb exploded in sequence.
Brown’s visit came a day after Iraq’s Cabinet passed on to parliament a resolution outlining the withdrawal timetable. Brown urged lawmakers to approve the pact.
The accord is similar to the Status of Forces Agreement governing the U.S. troop presence that was approved by the parliament Nov. 27. It takes effect Jan. 1 and replaces the expiring United Nations mandate that oversees the role of foreign forces in Iraq.
The pact governing the British operation also includes about 500 troops from Australia, Romania, Estonia and El Salvador. It is not clear whether the remaining forces will adhere to the July 31 deadline. Missions ended Wednesday for troops from Lithuania, and Albanian soldiers are leaving at the end of the week.
The U.S.-led coalition once included forces from at least 39 countries, with a very small number contributing more than 1,000 soldiers and some offering fewer than 100.
In the last year, British troops rarely ventured into Basra, confining themselves to a base on its outskirts. During the Iraqi government offensive, it was U.S. troops, not the British, who played the leading role in air and ground support.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Raheem Salman and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.