WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- The plotters arrested in Iraq's Interior Ministry did not pose a serious threat to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the very existence of the plot throws enormous doubt over the survival and stability of Iraq's 3-year-old democratic system, once the main combat force of the U.S. armed forces leaves the country. That will occur within the next 18 months, if U.S. President-elect Barack Obama can fulfill his stated timetable.
According to initial accounts, between 23 and 35 Iraqi Interior Ministry officials have been arrested on suspicion of plotting a military coup to topple Maliki's democratically elected government.
As many as six generals may be implicated. Two of the suspects arrested were actually on the famous "deck of cards" of most-wanted Baathists that U.S. authorities in Iraq printed after the invasion. There have been claims, so far denied by Iraqi officials, that the plotters were associated with al-Awad -- Return -- an underground Baathist organization formed by followers of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after he was toppled from power by the U.S. armed forces in April 2003.
If the initial reports prove accurate, the plotters were far too few in number and lacked control of key power structures within the Iraqi armed forces and security services to hope for any real chance of success in any coup in the immediate future. They were Sunni Muslims, and the power structures of the new Iraqi state are held tightly by Shiites, who were repressed by the Sunni minority in central Iraq for the entire 82-year history of Iraq as a single nation from 1921 to 2003.
But the arrests are nevertheless a highly significant straw in the wind and a harbinger of much worse problems to come.
The corruption charges against the accused can be discounted, not because they are fictitious but because virtually every official in post-Saddam Iraq can be plausibly so charged.
The charges that the accused were plotting to reconstitute Saddam's old Baath -- "Resurrection" -- Arab Socialist Party are far more significant. The chance that such a coup could have first succeeded and then maintained itself in the long term is negligible. As long as U.S. forces remain in the country, it would have had zero chance of succeeding. And even if U.S. forces had not intervened after a combat forces pullout, neighboring Iran certainly would have, to support the Shiite-dominated regular Iraqi armed forces and the network of Shiite militias that control all of southern Iraq.
The plot, however, cannot be seen in isolation. The popularity and credibility of Maliki's government remain tenuous, and U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the Maliki government has completely changed the political dynamics in Baghdad.
Everyone in Iraq now knows U.S. forces will effectively be leaving over the next year and a half. Everyone also knows that the weak Maliki government only exists with the sufferance of the main Shiite militia organizations, all of which have massively infiltrated the Iraqi army, police and security services on a scale the Sunni Baathists cannot match.
Already, there are many rumors of coups swirling around Baghdad. U.S. troops are currently projected to be out of Iraq's cities in six months. That will be a crucial milestone, for it is almost certain to be followed by ferocious clashes between the different militias and political movements to decide who will control the streets. Even if the Iraqi army -- still effectively untested when it is not backed up by U.S. military power -- can win that struggle, that will leave open the question of who really controls the army.
All of this has happened before. Most Americans remain unaware that Iraq was actually a practicing democracy for 33 years, from 1925 to 1958, with British armed forces in the country supposedly guaranteeing constitutional stability. Yet during that same period of time, there were three military coups, the genocide of the ancient Assyrian Christian community, repeated pogroms, the systematic despoiling of the ancient Iraqi Jewish community and repeated air strikes against rebellious Sunni and Shiite tribes using Britain's Royal Air Force involving the indiscriminate killing of women and children.
Eventually, in 1958, the British-maintained quasi-democratic system was overthrown and the Iraqi royal family massacred with exceptional barbarity to scenes of wild rejoicing. A decade of intrigues, plots, coups and counter-coups followed until the second Baath Republic established a harsh, totalitarian and merciless order in 1968.
The history of Iraq, therefore, teaches the consistent lesson that instability, military coups, plots and intrigues are the most successful and deeply rooted patterns of political behavior, and that over the past 75 years Iraqi democratic institutions have never been able to function successfully and independently without continual interventions on their behalf by outside powers. The discovery of the new alleged Baathist plot suggests that nothing has changed.