- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces have disrupted a 9/11-style plot by al Qaeda’s local offshoot to fly hijacked planes into Shiite religious shrines, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Targeting holy sites has long been a hallmark of the Sunni-dominated al Qaeda in Iraq to stoke sectarian violence.

Two men have been arrested in connection with the plan, according to two senior Iraqi officials, and the airport near the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf has been closed since April 8 as the investigation continues. The domed shrine is one of the holiest Shiite sites in the world.

Two U.S. intelligence officials in Washington confirmed the plot but said it did not appear to be fully planned out, nor was it clear that militants would be able to carry out any attacks.

Still, they said the threats were being taken seriously as “the intent seems real,” according to one of the U.S. officials.

All four of the U.S. and Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was under way.

Meeting Wednesday afternoon with local lawmakers in Najaf, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said the airport “will be reopened soon, after discussing the needed security measures.” He said the intelligence about the attacks is unclear but “at the same time, we can’t neglect them.”

He did not confirm or comment on any of the specific allegations.

The Iraqi security officials said al Qaeda planned to hijack flights as they were leaving Iraqi airports. Authorities shut down airports in Najaf and Baghdad last week in response to the threat, the officials said. The Najaf airport has been closed since April 8 and Baghdad’s International Airport shut down for a few hours on April 7 in what officials then blamed on radar problems.

One of the Iraqi security officials denied that Wednesday, saying it was closed because of the threatened plot.

The Iraqi officials said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is aware of the plot and has ordered stepped-up screening measures at all airports.

They include random body searches of all passengers, airport workers and even security officials — everyone but Iraqi President Jalal Talabani because of his age and health.

Al-Maliki also has ordered strict background checks for pilots and flight crew flying in and out of Iraqi airports.

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