Friday, August 29, 2008

BAGHDAD | A senior official in Nouri al-Maliki’s government was in custody Thursday 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 — which occurred 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 probes into Shi’ite networks, including suspected links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Mr. al-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 claim the government wants to limit the overall Sunni voice in political and security issues.

He was arrested by U.S. and Iraqi troops at Baghdad’s airport as he returned with his family from medical treatment in Beirut, said a member of his committee, Qaiser Watout.

“We condemn this act,” Mr. Watout said. “Al-Lami was a moderate official and we are surprised by his arrest.”

U.S. military officials would not confirm the arrest of Mr. al-Lami, who has been involved in government affairs since shortly after Saddam’s fall in 2003.

But the U.S. command said a “suspected senior” leader of Iranian-backed “Special Groups” militias was detained at the airport on charges of 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, along with six Iraqis, died in the blast.

“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 U.S. military statement said.

In Washington, a senior U.S. military intelligence official said Thursday that the statement referred to Mr. al-Lami and that he was thought to have information that would lead investigators to people connected to “other countries,” an apparent reference to Iran and Lebanon. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Iraqi Shi’ite parties that dominate the government maintain close ties to Iran, where many key figures spent years in exile during Saddam’s rule. U.S. officials have long maintained that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, through its elite Quds Force, arms and trains Shi’ite extremists. Tehran denies the charge.

U.S. and Iraqi officials also have said that the Iranians use members of Lebanon’s Shi’ite movement Hezbollah to train Iraqi Shi’ite militants. Hezbollah has denied the allegation.

The U.S. military says the special groups are breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is now in Iran. Mr. al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire in August 2007, but some factions refused to accept the order and have continued attacks.

On Thursday, Mr. al-Sadr released a statement saying his largely disbanded Mahdi Army militia would extend that cease-fire “until further notice.”

Separately, the U.S. military said an American soldier died of wounds he received after coming under fire while patrolling northern Baghdad on Wednesday.

Another U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack while on patrol Thursday in Baghdad, the military said.

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