A taxi drives past Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad. Much of city… (Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Baghdad — When Baghdadis awoke Tuesday to find their streets sealed off and the Iraqi capital under virtual lockdown, the rumors began to fly. Army officers had staged a coup in the Green Zone, one version went. No, members of the Baath Party loyal to the former regime had taken over, according to another.
At midday, officials appeared on television to try to calm the city.
"The security forces can't stage a coup. Our security forces are professional," military spokesman Mohammed Askari said at a news conference. "The era of coups is gone."
Rather, he said, the government had ordered the lockdown to foil a major plot involving car bombings and suicide attacks on civilian and government targets.
In a later statement, security forces said they had detained 25 people and confiscated 440 pounds of TNT, 440 pounds of C-4 explosives, more than 65 gallons of ammonium nitrate and 60 mortar rounds.
There may well have been such a plot. Parliament members were told by the authorities that the Iraqis had received a tip from the U.S. military that about six booby-trapped cars had arrived in Baghdad from the Syrian border area and were to target sites such as government ministries, Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza wouldn't comment directly on the American role, but said U.S. forces "have a very good relationship with the Iraqis, in both sharing information and in our efforts to support the conduct of operations" with Iraqi security forces.
Three recent bombings have left hundreds dead, and more have been predicted as the March elections approach.
Whether the alleged plot has been fully thwarted is open to question, however.
The quantities of explosives uncovered would barely equal that of one of the recent bombs. The government did not specify whether the security forces had found the bombs purported to be circulating.
But the panic showed how jittery the city is as the elections approach. 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.
"People are feeling very nervous about the security situation and also about the political situation, which is getting more complicated every day," said Nabil Salim, a political scientist at Baghdad University.
There also is a high level of paranoia about the threat posed by Baathists, who ruled under Saddam Hussein. The government has helped fuel the fears by warning that members of the outlawed group are plotting to return to power and blaming them for the blasts.
One rumor Tuesday was that Sunni Muslim politician Saleh Mutlak had been assassinated in the Green Zone. Days earlier, a committee that ensures that candidates don't have Baathists ties had recommended that Mutlak be barred from the elections.
Mutlak 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.
Salar Jaff and Mohammed Arrawi of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.