IRAQ: Coup rumors paralyze Baghdad
When Baghdadis awoke this morning to find their streets sealed off and the city under virtual lockdown, the rumors began to fly.
Army officers had staged a coup in the Green Zone, one version said. No, it was Baathists loyal to the former regime who had taken over, according to another.
Mostly, the rumors concerned the Sunni lawmaker Saleh Mutlak, who has been recommended for disbarment from the upcoming March elections by the former De-Baathification Committee, now known as the Accountability and Justice Committee.
Mutlak had been assassinated, according to the most widespread rumor, a variation of which had Mutlak staging the coup in the Green Zone. The Mutlak rumors reached Kurdistan, where anxious travelers fretted over whether it would be safe to fly back to Baghdad.
At midday, government officials appeared on television to calm the capital.
"The security forces can't stage a coup. Our security forces are professional," military spokesman Mohammed Askari told a news conference. "The era of coups is gone."
Rather, he said, the government had received information that car bombings and suicide attacks were being planned against civilian targets, and the lockdown had been ordered to allow security forces to search for the explosive devices and those involved.
Mutlak himself showed up alive and well at the Iraqi parliament, wearing a marigold in his lapel, after being awakened early in the morning by people calling to see if he was OK. He laughed off the rumors. "They tried to assassinate me politically, and now physically," he cracked.
But the panic showed just how jittery the city is in the run up to the March elections. Though most roads were reopened by midmorning, schools were closed and some neighborhoods were sealed off into the evening. By nightfall, streets that would normally be bustling with traffic were almost deserted.
Fears of violence are widespread, particularly of the kind of large-scale attacks that caused hundreds of casualties on three separate occasions in the last five months.
There's also a high level of paranoia about the threat posed by Baathists, which the government has helped fuel by repeatedly warning that the outlawed group is plotting to return to power.
There may have been more to the coup rumors than meets the eye. An Interior Ministry official, who did not want to be named, said the rumor began after an army unit moved from one location to another without advance warning or permission.
One parliamentarian, the former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, said he believed Baathists had deliberately planted rumors of a coup in order to stir up the government.
"The reaction of the Iraqi government shows hypersensitive they are," Rubaie said. " I believe they fell into the trap."
-- Liz Sly and Ned Parker in Baghdad
Upper photo: A taxi drives past Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad. Much of city was under virtual lockdown after the government said it received information that car bombings and suicide attacks were being planned. Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images
Lower photo: Saleh Mutlak. Credit: Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press