Iraqi security forces say they thwarted terrorism plot, seized cache of explosives

By Rebecca Santana, AP
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Iraq says explosives seized in security operation

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces locked down large swathes of Baghdad on Tuesday, seized hundreds of pounds of explosives and arrested 25 men suspected of plotting terror attacks possibly timed to coincide with the run-up to parliamentary elections in March.

Iraq’s nationwide election will test whether Iraqis can vote in a government capable of overcoming deepening ethnic and sectarian rivalries, or whether those divisions will dissolve into violence that threatens the country’s unity and regional stability. Serious threats to Iraq’s security could hinder the drawdown of U.S. forces slated to happen after the March 7 vote.

An explosives expert told The Associated Press that if the government’s claims were true, the amount of military grade explosive seized would have been enough for several car bombs or a large truck bomb. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

It was impossible to independently verify the government’s claims, which followed hours of lockdowns and searches of neighborhoods across the capital. Such operations have become rare since the height of the insurgency in 2006 and 2007 and as security in the capital improved since 2008.

Officials have warned that insurgents seeking to disrupt the March vote could try to step up attacks as the election nears. The stakes are especially high for the prime minister’s Rule of Law coalition, which is campaigning on its ability to protect citizens.

Iraqi security agencies have been increasingly taking over duties from U.S. forces, whose combat units are scheduled to leave by the end of August and the rest by Jan. 1, 2012.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the capital’s top military spokesman, said security forces had launched pre-emptive raids and seized 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of TNT, 440 pounds (200 kilograms) C4 and 66 gallons (250 liters) of ammonia, as well as 60 explosive devices.

“The security forces were able to arrest 25 men who planned to carry out terrorist attacks in Baghdad this morning,” he said.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the raids were prompted by a tip-off.

“We salute the courageous citizen who gave the useful information to the security forces. I cannot reveal his name, but we salute him for contacting us,” he said, before apologizing to ordinary Iraqis inconvenienced by the lockdown.

Even without increased security, it can already take hours to negotiate the city’s snarled traffic jams — partly caused by blocked roads and interminable checkpoints.

The capital has been rocked by a number of high-profile bombings in recent months, mostly targeting government institutions in central Baghdad. Hundreds were killed in those bombings.

Opponents of the Shiite-led government questioned the timing of the security crackdown, suggesting it was carried out to show voters the government was in control of security.

“We have noticed the climate of fear and terror that took place in Baghdad (today) due to the curfew and the repressive measures against citizens. We are surprised by these measures, especially that only two months are left for the elections,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni politician.

Al-Mutlaq is among those that a committee tasked with keeping supporters of the Saddam Hussein regime out of politics has recommended barring from the upcoming vote.

His potential exclusion raised fears that Sunnis might boycott the polls again, as they did in a January 2005 election. That boycott was followed by a surge in insurgent attacks.

The committee has recommended banning 14 political parties and one individual from running.

“Members of those entities were personnel of the former regime’s repressive security apparatus, or Mukhabarat (secret police) officers, and some of them were collaborators with the former regime,” said Ali al-Lami, the head of the committee.

U.S. and Iraqi military officials expect violence to increase in the run-up to the March polls. One election worker has already been killed and another kidnapped, and on Saturday gunmen shot and wounded an employee of the committee charged with keeping Saddam supporters out of politics.

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld, Saad Abdul-Kadir and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Washington contributed to this report.

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