WASHINGTON -- A major purge has begun in the Iraqi military in the wake of reports of a coup attempt against President Saddam Hussein last week, administration officials said yesterday.
The reports of the purge of Iraq's officer corps have added details to early, sketchy descriptions of unrest in Baghdad that came last week.
One official said the United States was involved in the coup plot. "There is a major purge going on," he said. "There was a plot" and "we were involved," he added, refusing to provide any details.
Administration officials said that the United States is now intensifying plans to further weaken Mr. Hussein. Those plans include toughening an international trade embargo already in place against Iraq.
President Bush, who is in a tough re-election campaign, has come under fire from critics who have suggested that his policy toward Iraq before it invaded Kuwait in August 1990 was misguided and had been motivated by a desire to appease Mr. Hussein. The president is thought to want to consolidate his victory in the Persian Gulf war by removing Mr. Hussein from power.
Since late last year, the CIA has been authorized to step up efforts to destabilize the Iraqi government, including making covert contacts with Iraqi citizens and government officials.
The Iraqi government denied Friday that it had uncovered a couattempt. But administration officials said the purge was set off last week by Mr. Hussein's discovery of the coup plot.
An intelligence report from inside Iraq said that Mr. Hussein told his officers that a group of conspirators in the upper reaches of the Iraqi military had been detected, arrested and tortured. He said they confessed to being involved in a U.S.-Jordanian plot to overthrow him. One U.S. official said that many more people had been executed than just the commander of the unit involved.
The intelligence report also said Mr. Hussein implied that he could seek retribution for the "collusion" against him. That touched off a security alert in Jordan, where the royal palace and the U.S. Embassy braced for a possible retaliatory terrorist attack from Baghdad, officials said.
The official who mentioned the U.S. role said that Mr. Hussein is citing a role by Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence.
Mr. Gates made an unannounced visit to Jordan late last month, seeking unsuccessfully to persuade King Hussein to let U.N. inspectors take up posts at the port of Aqaba to keep goods from reaching Iraq in violation of the 23-month-old trade embargo.
But King Hussein did pledge unspecified continuing cooperation Mr. Gates in the efforts to topple Mr. Hussein, officials said. Among other things, the king has approved a much larger CIA presence in Jordan.
The stepped-up planning against Mr. Hussein would seek Security Council support to set up a U.N. roadblock just inside the Iraqi border near the Jordanian frontier post of Trebil.