The arrests started last month and kept growing. First it was 200, then 400, and now more than 600 Iraqis alleged to be members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party have been rounded up and accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One reason given for the crackdown was odd, even by Iraqi standards. A “senior official in the Iraqi government” told The New York Times last week that they had received a tipoff from an unlikely source: intelligence documents found in Tripoli after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi indicated that the Saharan madman was helping Baathists and former military officers in Iraq to topple the government, the newspaper reported. Mahmoud Jibril, the former Libyan acting prime minister, allegedly passed on the intelligence tip to members of the Iraqi government while on a visit to Baghdad early last month.
Now a senior Iraqi official tells The Daily Beast that in fact there was no Libyan tipoff. “The Libyans didn’t pass any information. This report is absolutely baseless and untrue,” says the senior official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “This was a plan by the security to arrest people they suspect. It’s a precaution to mobilize in the streets in anticipation of the American withdrawal.”
The Maliki government’s widespread crackdown comes at a particularly fraught time. There are only two months left until American troops completely withdraw from Iraq and many Iraqis are deeply worried that without the American military there to enforce a tense peace between ethnic groups the country could slip back into the brutal sectarian conflict that flared after the American invasion.
The arrests threaten to re-ignite sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis—the government is dominated by Shiites, most Baathists are Sunni—except this time there will be no American troops to keep the two sides apart. “We are approaching the American withdrawal. We need reconciliation, cooperation, and to work together,” says Mahmoud Othman, an Iraqi parliamentarian. “These arrests create more problems for us. Unless we get details about these people from the government, we are in doubt about the operations.”
Government official have pointed out that there have been many arrests made in the predominantly Shiite cities of southern Iraq. Still, that hasn’t changed the impression that the government is on a witch-hunt against Sunni Arabs.
The fear is so great that some Sunni leaders are already pushing a motion for Salahuddin, a predominantly Sunni Arab province, to become an autonomous region like Kurdistan. A provincial council in Tikrit voted overwhelmingly in favor of this motion last week. Maliki fired back quickly in a TV interview over the weekend, claiming that the province would become a “safe house for Baathists.”
So as the American troops depart, the Iraqis are not banding together to defend their country against external threats. Once again, they appear to be looking to pick fights and settle scores inside Iraq’s borders. “We are concerned about the American withdrawal,” the senior Iraqi official says. “The danger is not outside—it’s internal. The most serious challenge is the fall of political consensus.” That’s a polite way of describing the threat of civil war.