More than 20 employees of Iraq's defense and interior ministries have been arrested on allegations they were plotting to revive Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party, government officials said Thursday.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Yassin Majid, told The Associated Press that 24 employees of the two ministeries were arrested on suspicion of "facilitating activities for terrorists and outlaws and officials of the former regime."
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf told reporters that 23 people, primarily traffic police officers, had been arrested over the past five days in a Baath party plot but he dismissed suggestions they were planning a coup.
Another security official put the figure at 25 and said a brigadier general in the traffic police was the highest-ranking figure. Most are low-level ministry employees, he said. The official, who has access to the investigative file, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter to the media.
A third security official said those in custody were believed to have links to al-Awad, or "Return," a Sunni underground organization founded in 2003 to try to restore Saddam and the Baath party to power.
He also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.
But Khalaf denied that the group had links to al-Awad.
The U.S. military referred all inquiries to the Iraqi government.
Iraq's 2005 constitution bans the Baath party and any group that uses its symbols and ideology "regardless of the name that it adopts."
Some Iraqi politicians also expressed doubt that the plotters were actively trying to overthrow the government.
"I think talking about a coup is an exaggeration," Abbas al-Bayati, a senior lawmaker of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the largest Shiite party, told Al-Arabiya television.
He described those arrested as "a semi-organized group" but said the fact that they were trying to restore the Baath party pointed to shortcomings in Iraqi security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Iraqi parliament's security committee, told AP Television News that "reports speaking about a coup attempt are baseless. In fact, coups are usually carried out by the army and not by police."
Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish bloc lawmaker, said he hoped "the move against those arrested is not politically motivated or aims at electoral gains."
The Interior Ministry's director of internal affairs, Gen. Ahmed Abu Raqeef, denied a report in The New York Times that he was among those arrested.
"I am still in the ministry, carrying out my duties, and these accusations are baseless," Abu Raqeef said at a news conference.
The Baath party ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam's regime was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Outlawing the Baath party was the first official act of the U.S.-run occupation authority that ruled until June 2004. The purge of thousands of Baath party members from government jobs cost the country the services of skilled people who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies.
In February, Iraq's presidency council issued a new law that allowed lower-ranking former Baath party members to reclaim government jobs.
The measure was thought to affect about 38,000 members of Saddam's political apparatus, giving them a chance to go back to government jobs. It also allows those who have reached retirement age to claim government pensions.
Also Thursday, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a Baghdad news conference Sunday sent a letter to al-Maliki asking for a pardon, Majid told the AP.
"It is too late now to regret the big and ugly act that I perpetrated," Muntadhar al-Zeidi wrote, according to Majid.
Majid told the AP that al-Zeidi went on in the letter to recall an interview he conducted with the prime minister in 2005 when al-Maliki invited him into his home saying: "Come in, it is your home too."
"So I ask for your pardon," al-Zeidi wrote.
Also, the Iraqi parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, returned to the chamber Thursday, a day after saying he was resigning in response to a stormy session in which lawmakers argued over wether the journalist should be freed.
It was unclear at the time whether al-Mashhadani, who has a history of erratic behavior, spoke out of pique or intended the statement as a formal announcement.
"Regardless of his announcement resignation he has come today in session," said Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. Al-Mashhadani also is a Sunni.