BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities released without charge the nearly two dozen security officials who had been accused this week of conspiring to revive Saddam Hussein's banned political party, the interior minister said.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that an investigating judge ordered the officials released "because they are innocent" and that there was no evidence that they attempted to restore the Baath party, whose exiled leaders staunchly oppose the current government.
He said 19 were freed from custody and that charges were to be dismissed against the remaining four who were not in custody. Earlier in the day, al-Bolani told reporters that the charges were politically motivated by those trying to undermine the interior ministry.
The release came shortly after Iraqi officials began playing down the arrests of the officials from Iraq's three major security ministries and dismissing reports that they were believed to have been planning a coup.
Some Iraqi politicians had speculated the arrests were part of campaign to bolster Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power before two key elections next year _ at the expense of Sunnis and secular figures.
Few details about those arrested were ever released, but it was difficult to see how the allegations could have posed a serious threat to al-Maliki, especially with nearly 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Western officials have said privately that al-Maliki fears Iraqi military officers may some day attempt to seize power and has moved to tighten his control of the ministries that run the army and police.
The Baath party was founded in Damascus, Syria, in the 1940s as a secular, socialist Arab nationalist movement, and its ranks once included a number of Arab Christian intellectuals. Later the party split along national lines, and it still rules in Syria.
The party ruled Iraq until Saddam's regime was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Outlawing the Baath party was the first official act of the U.S.-run occupation authority which ruled until June 2004. The purge of thousands of Baath party members from government jobs cost the country the services of skilled people who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies.
In February, Iraq's presidency council issued a new law that allowed lower-ranking former Baath party members to reclaim government jobs.
The measure was thought to affect about 38,000 members of Saddam's political apparatus, giving them a chance to go back to government jobs. It would also allow those who have reached retirement age to claim government pensions.
Associated Press Writer Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.