Senior Iraqi official accused of militia ties
Suspected of aiding bombing that killed 10
BAGHDAD - A senior official in Nouri al-Maliki's government was in custody yesterday, suspected of ties to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and plotting a June bombing that killed 10 people, including four Americans, Iraqi authorities said.
The arrest of Ali al-Lami - taken Wednesday as he left a plane arriving from Lebanon - reinforced suspicions about Tehran's influence within the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government and could open wider investigations into Shi'ite networks, including possible links to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Lami heads a commission responsible for keeping Saddam Hussein loyalists out of government posts and has been a target of criticism from Sunni leaders who contend that the government wants to limit the overall Sunni voice in political and security issues.
He was arrested by US and Iraqi troops at Baghdad's airport as he returned with his family from medical treatment in Beirut, said Qaiser Watout, a member of his committee.
US and Iraqi troops were waiting for Lami as the plane's doors opened, Watout said.
"We condemn this act," Watout said. He "was a moderate official and we are surprised by his arrest."
US military officials would not confirm the arrest of Lami, who has been involved in government affairs since shortly after Hussein's fall in 2003.
But the US command said a "suspected senior" leader of Iranian-backed "Special Groups" militias was detained at the airport for allegedly planning the June 24 bombing of a municipal building in the capital's Shi'ite district of Sadr City. Two American soldiers and two State Department employees died in the blast along with six Iraqis.
"The man has been known to travel in and out of Iraq to neighboring nations including Iran and Lebanon, where it is believed he meets and helps run the Iranian-backed Special Groups in Iraq," the US military statement said.
In Washington, a senior US military intelligence official said yesterday that the statement referred to Lami and that he was believed to have information that would lead investigators to people connected to "other countries," an apparent reference to Iran and Lebanon.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case but added he had personally reviewed "multiple and corroborating reports" pointing to Lami.
Iraqi Shi'ite parties that dominate the government maintain close ties to Iran, where many key figures spent years in exile during Hussein's rule. US officials have long maintained that Iran's Revolutionary Guards, through its elite Quds Force, arms and trains Shi'ite extremists - a charge Tehran denies.
US and Iraqi officials have also alleged that the Iranians use members of Lebanon's Shi'ite movement Hezbollah to train Iraqi Shi'ite militants. Hezbollah has denied the allegation.
Sunni politicians have long protested that efforts to purge former members of Hussein's Sunni-dominated Ba'ath Party from the government and military were used to exclude Sunnis from political life in Iraq and expand Iranian influence.
The United States launched the effort to remove senior Ba'ath figures from public life shortly after the 2003 invasion. Last January, however, Parliament approved legislation relaxing the ban in a US-backed move to reconcile Shi'ites and Sunnis.
But many Shi'ites, who suffered under the former regime, resent any moves to restore Ba'ath Party figures to government jobs, especially those in the security services.
Last month, a government report shown to The Associated Press showed that 123 former intelligence and security officers had been quietly reinstated into their jobs after the new law went into effect.
Reaction to Lami's arrest was sharply divided along sectarian lines.
Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite and former Pentagon favorite once viewed by Washington as a possible successor to Hussein, condemned the arrest, saying that Lami had played "a great essential role" in "fighting and confronting Saddam's regime despite the risks that surrounded him."
Chalabi, who spearheaded the first moves against Ba'ath members, called for Lami's release and said in a statement that his arrest showed that US-led forces pay "no attention to Iraqi human rights."
But Sunni legislator Mohammed al-Daini accused Lami and others of sectarian bias and links to Iran.
"The Americans know very well that such people were brought up and trained in Iranian intelligence system," Daini said without offering evidence. Lami's detention "is part of a chain of events that will lead to the uncovering of others," he said.
Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, spokesman for the main Sunni bloc in Parliament, said the Sunni community was "looking forward to the results of the investigation" into Lami's arrest because "it is unlikely that he was working alone."
The US military believes the special groups are breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is now in Iran. Sadr ordered a cease-fire in August 2007 but some factions refused to accept the order and have continued attacks.
Separately, the military said a US soldier died of wounds he received after coming under fire while patrolling northern Baghdad on Wednesday. Another soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack while on patrol yesterday in Baghdad, the military said.