TEL AVIV, Israel — The government of Iraq is secretly holding a Baathist cabal of military officers it claims attempted a coup against Prime Minister al-Maliki.
The plotters were rounded up July 5 with the help of American military authorities after the Iraqi government's security warning center sent word to Mr. Maliki, who was in Kuwait on his first official visit as head of state, two highly placed Iraqi sources said.
The prime minister quickly canceled a scheduled trip to Amman, Jordan, and returned to Baghdad to attend to the matter. At the time, Mr. Maliki's staff told reporters that the prime minister was cutting his trip short because of Iraq's "security situation."
In an interview last night, an adviser to Mr. Maliki and a member of parliament in Baghdad, Mithal al-Alusi, said a coup attempt indeed took place last month. He said the mutinous attempt to replace the elected government of Iraq was organized by military officers loyal to Saddam Hussein.
"The Baathists were trying to have this coup, and people have been arrested and it has been stopped. There have been a lot of rumors as to who is behind this," Mr. Alusi said, referring to speculation that the plot may have involved a former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, whose men worked with the CIA in 1995 to oust Saddam in a military coup.
But Mr. Alusi said Mr. Allawi was not behind the coup attempt. "I have seen the file and their pictures and I can say that this is not Ayad Allawi. These people were in the system, but they are not well-known," he said.
Mr. Alusi first went public with news of the attempted coup in an interview with the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat on July 30. Baghdad has been abuzz with speculation about such a rebellion for at least three weeks.
While Mr. Alusi said the attempted overthrow of Mr. Maliki's government was not well-planned — and one high-ranking Iraqi security minister has denied that any such plot was conceived — it is possible a fifth column exists within Iraq's military and security services.
In vetting Iraqi military officers, American officials relied on poor information, a joint inspector-general report issued by the Pentagon and State Department last summer said. That report pointed out that the security services in particular were vulnerable to sabotage from officers loyal to ethnic militias.
Iraq's recent history is littered with similar coups. Rebellions were responsible for governmental changes in 1941, 1958, 1963, 1968, and by some accounts 1979, when Saddam came to full power.
Most of the coups since 1963 have involved the Baath Party and the military. While America dissolved the Iraqi military in May 2003, many of the senior military officers were hired back into the provisional Interior Ministry with CIA and MI6 consent. The CIA supported an officers' coup against Saddam in 1995 that was foiled after the regime intercepted the communications equipment meant to broadcast the results of the operation to the agency's Amman station.
This week, a London-based organization founded by a former British MI6 officer, the Conflicts Forum, issued a report that said coup plotters met in June in Damascus at the same time American forces assassinated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"The Damascus group included some of the more well known lights of the former Baathist regime, who fled the country on the eve of the war, to take up residence in Qatar, Jordan and other nearby countries," the report said.
The Conflicts Forum seeks to open political dialogue between Western governments and political Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.
One senior Iraqi government official, Shirwan al-Waili, has heaped scorn on speculation about a coup attempt last month. On August 3, Mr. Waili, Iraq's national security minister, told the Italian wire service AKI: "I take part in all joint meetings between Iraq and the United States command here and have never received any reports of a failed attempt to stage a military coup." But Mr. Waili added, "We have for some time suspected that someone is seeking to ensure the government fails, but not to the point of toppling it in a coup, something that would currently be impossible to carry out."
Mr. Alusi — the sole representative in government of his secular liberal party, which includes both Shiite and Sunni Iraqis — said that for the time being, the government is trying to keep word of the coup secret. "They are trying to keep this quiet," Mr. Alusi said.
"This kind of coup cannot succeed, a military coup," he said. "The plan of the terrorists and the Baathists is to keep doing what they are doing now, and continue their assault on Iraqis."