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Authorities in Iraq have detained more than 600 people who they say once belonged to Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. Officials contend these suspects were plotting to overthrow the government. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The crackdown on ex-Baathists started earlier this month. Authorities began rounding up people in their homes and places of work. Then, about 160 professors and faculty members were fired from the University of Tikrit. That's the hometown of Saddam.
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MCEVERS: At this meeting late last week, the head of the regional government in Tikrit retaliated, announcing the region would sever its ties with the central government and seek to become an autonomous region.
The problem with the crackdown is that most of the ex-Baathists are Sunni. The leadership in Iraq is now Shiite. Iraqi leaders say a good percentage of those who've been arrested are Shiite. But analysts in the region say the crackdown could reignite sectarian tensions that are only just below the surface. Now other Sunni parts of Iraq are also threatening to seek autonomy.
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MCEVERS: In Sunni-dominated western Iraq, thousands of protesters came out over the weekend. Some of them blocked one of the country's main highways. One woman had nothing but complaint for the authorities who'd come to her town to arrest ex-Baathists.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: They searched our houses, tossed our furniture, she says. Some of the men on the arrest list are more than 70 years old. Do you think they're plotting to overthrow the government?
Iraqi officials say the crackdown is, in part, a response to intelligence they say they received from other Arab countries. The first of these is Libya. Officials in the new Libyan government reportedly traveled to Baghdad earlier this month, with evidence that Moammar Gadhafi was supporting a group of Iraqi Baathists who planned to overthrow the Iraqi government.
The second country is Syria. The Iraqi press has reported that leaders in Syria also provided a list of Iraqi Baathists in that country who were plotting an Iraqi coup.
Saleh al Mutlaq is a deputy prime minister of Iraq and a leading figure for Sunnis. He says he hasn't seen the Libyan or Syrian intelligence because there's no such thing.
SALEH AL MUTLAQ: I know that there are no evidences there. It's not a matter of seeing or not.
MCEVERS: Mutlaq says the arrest list is a sham.
MUTLAQ: I know some of the people. I know that some of the people who are going to be arrested died five years ago.
MCEVERS: Mutlaq says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is using the arrests as a way to shore up power for himself and his Shiite party, especially as the U.S. is set to withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year. This, Mutlaq says, is a strategy that eventually will fail.
MUTLAQ: You cannot show people that you are strong, just by arresting them. You are strong by delivering services to them, by increasing the standard of living to them, not by arresting them.
MCEVERS: Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, and Mutlaq, his Sunni deputy, are longtime rivals. At a cabinet meeting this past week, the two had an argument so fierce that Maliki stormed out. Just before he left, Mutlaq says Maliki issued a threat. We're coming for you, he says Maliki warned, you and all of your people.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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