Security officials foiled an al-Qaida plot that would have put hundreds of its men at critical guard posts around Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. and other foreign embassies as well as the Iraqi government, the interior minister told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
A senior Defense Ministry official said the 421 al-Qaida fighters were recruited to storm the U.S. and British embassies and take hostages.
Several ranking Defense Ministry officials have been jailed in the plot, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, said the al-Qaida recruits were one bureaucrat’s signature away from acceptance into an Iraqi army battalion whose job is to control the gates and main squares in the Green Zone. The plot was discovered three weeks ago.
“You can imagine what could happen to a minister or an ambassador while passing through these gates when those terrorists are there,” Jabr said in the interview conducted at his office inside the Green Zone — a 2-square-mile area of prime Baghdad real estate on the west bank of the Tigris River. The area is a maze of concrete blast walls, concertina wire and checkpoints.
U.S. aware of incident
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he was aware of the incident.
“I’ve heard about the report. I’ve not received anything definitive,” he said, noting that initial reports often change.
“I don’t know that I’d say we’ve learned anything at least at this stage that would suggest any important lesson.
“We’ve always known that there are people who’ve tried to infiltrate the various security forces and get to close access to places they ought not to be. There’s nothing new about that that I know of,” Rumsfeld said.
Defense officials involved
Jabr confirmed that a number of Defense Ministry officials had been jailed after the plot was discovered. The defense ministry official said some of them had forged the signature of the Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi on behalf of the terrorists.
The Defense Ministry official said the plot was uncovered by the military intelligence and the government’s General Intelligence Service, which said the al-Qaida recruits planned to take U.S. and British diplomats hostage then demand withdrawal of U.S. and British troops.
The Defense Ministry was carrying out operations to capture the would-be recruits, both men said.
“Most of them were members of the same tribe and came from the same area,” Jabr said but refused to give specifics because of the ongoing operation. Neither Jabr nor the Defense Ministry official would give details on any arrests.
“The 421 were supposed to be in control of the entrances to the Green Zone and internal squares. I mean they were going to be in charge of security in the Green Zone in the future,” Jabr told AP. “They were going to carry out operations. Most of them are wanted terrorists” using false identification.
There have been attacks on the Green Zone in the past with mortar rounds and rockets. A number of car bombs driven by suicide attackers have been detonated in the past two years at the entrances, killing scores.
On Oct. 14, 2004, two al-Qaida members carried out a suicide attack inside the zone, hitting a market and a cafe. Six were killed, including four Americans, and 20 people were wounded.
Jabr is a Shiite and his ministry, which controls the police, has been repeatedly accused of allowing death squads to operate against Sunnis as the two Muslim sects settle old scores in the chaos of today’s Iraq.
The Sunnis, the minority sect in Iraq, were politically dominant under Saddam, a co-religionist. But since the former leader was ousted after the U.S.-led invasion, Sunni power is much diminished, a source of fierce resentment.
The insurgency that has raged since the late summer of 2003 has been largely a Sunni operation in conjunction with foreign fighters imported by Jordanian-born al-Qaida in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But Jabr’s disclosure of the foiled plot, which could have been seen as a political ploy to divert criticism, was confirmed by the top Defense Ministry official, a Sunni, who described it in even more dramatic terms.
Jabr: Reporter still alive
On other matters, Jabr told the Associated Press:
- Kidnapped Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was still alive and being moved from place to place by her captors. He would say nothing more about the case.
- He blamed much of today’s chaos in Iraq to former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer’s decision in May 2003 to disband the army and security forces.
- He did not expect a civil war in the country.
- The government security apparatus, within two months, would begin attempting to absorb all the country’s independent militia forces—except for the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “We must think of another solution for them,” he said.
- With Sunni tribesmen in Western Anbar province now reportedly turning on al-Qaida fighters who had taken refuge there, Jabr said he had heard that some of them were going “back to Afghanistan.”