High-level Iraqi official held on ties to militia

Deputy health minister allegedly involved in killings, corruption

February 09, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces yesterday detained a high-level Iraqi official allegedly connected to the killings of Health Ministry officials and responsible for diverting millions of dollars to a Shiite militia, the U.S. military said.

The arrest immediately sparked protests among Shiite lawmakers, who described it as an unlawful "kidnapping" and an attack on the "dignity of the Iraqis."

The U.S. military also announced the deaths of four Marines in Anbar province. They died in separate attacks Wednesday, according to a military statement.

The deaths brought to at least 30 the number of U.S. troops killed in the first week of February, according to the Associated Press. At least 3,115 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since March 2003.

Iraqi special forces yesterday raided the Ministry of Health in the capital, detaining Deputy Minister Hakim Zamili. A later U.S. military statement did not name him but said a senior ministry official had been taken. He was "implicated in the deaths of several [health] officials," including a provincial health official from Diyala who was kidnapped within the ministry, along with his guard several months ago.

The statement also alleged that the minister was taking kickbacks on health contracts and funneling the money to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite Muslim militia affiliated with anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "He is reported to openly intimidate and threaten [health] officials who disagree with and question his actions," the statement said.

Zamili's detainment was the latest of several high-profile arrests or killing of commanders from the Mahdi Army in recent weeks. He was the fifth Iraqi deputy or Cabinet level official to be arrested and charged with corruption since 2003, according to Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, and the first known example of a senior Iraqi official charged with directly contributing to the country's convulsive sectarian violence.

His arrest came on a day when new Iraqi army and police checkpoints appeared all over Baghdad as part of the new security plan for the city. Though it was unclear whether Zamili's arrest was part of the new plan, it underscored the challenge that American troops faced as they tried to secure the capital while relying on an Iraqi government with questionable loyalties.

Shiite lawmakers criticized the arrest.

"This kidnapping has proved that they are not only targeting the ruling government of Iraq but also the dignity of Iraqis," said Nassau Rubai, a Shiite lawmaker loyal to al-Sadr, in a statement.

The Health Ministry denounced the arrest, calling it a "violation of the sovereignty of Iraq." Pictures of dusty boot prints suggesting troops kicking down doors played on national television yesterday.

A delegation of al-Sadr-affiliated politicians brought their grief to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite who relies on al-Sadr for political support. In the past, al-Maliki has released high-level Shiite suspects detained by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

But U.S. officials hope that yesterday's raid represents a departure from past unwillingness to go after Shiite militias.

Lately, al-Maliki has spoken out more against the militias, saying his government will go after Sunnis and Shiites.

Around the country, violence continued with a car bomb that killed 15 people in the town of Aziziya, about 50 miles southeast of Baghdad. Mortar rounds killed seven people in Babil province, south of the capital.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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