BAGHDAD A senior official in Nouri al-Maliki's government was in custody Thursday suspected of ties to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and plotting a June bombing that killed 10 people, including four Americans, Iraqi authorities said.
The arrest of Ali al-Lami taken Wednesday as he left a plane arriving from Lebanon reinforced suspicions about Tehran's influence within the Shiite-led Iraqi government and could open wider probes into Shiite networks, including possible links to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Al-Lami heads a commission responsible for keeping Saddam Hussein loyalists out of government posts and has been a target of criticism from Sunni leaders who claim the government wants to limit the overall Sunni voice in political and security issues.
He was arrested by U.S. and Iraqi troops at Baghdad's airport as he returned with his family from medical treatment in Beirut, said a member of his committee, Qaiser Watout.
U.S. and Iraqi troops were waiting for al-Lami as the plane's doors opened, Watout said.
"We condemn this act," Watout said. "Al-Lami was a moderate official and we are surprised by his arrest."
U.S. military officials would not confirm the arrest of al-Lami, who has been involved in government affairs since shortly after Saddam's fall in 2003.
But the U.S. command said a "suspected senior" leader of Iranian-backed "Special Groups" militias was detained at the airport for allegedly planning the June 24 bombing of a municipal building in the capital's Shiite district of Sadr City. Two American soldiers and two State Department employees died in the blast along with six Iraqis.
"The man has been known to travel in and out of Iraq to neighboring nations including Iran and Lebanon, where it is believed he meets and helps run the Iranian-backed Special Groups in Iraq," the U.S. military statement said.
In Washington, a senior U.S. military intelligence official said Thursday that the statement referred to al-Lami and that he was believed to have information that would lead investigators to people connected to "other countries," an apparent reference to Iran and Lebanon.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case but added he had personally reviewed "multiple and corroborating reports" pointing to al-Lami.
Iraqi Shiite parties that dominate the government maintain close ties to Iran, where many key figures spent years in exile during Saddam's rule. U.S. officials have long maintained that Iran's Revolutionary Guards, through its elite Quds Force, arms and trains Shiite extremists a charge Tehran denies.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have also alleged that the Iranians use members of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah to train Iraqi Shiite militants. Hezbollah has denied the allegation.
Sunni politicians have long protested that efforts to purge ex-members of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baath Party from the government and military were used to exclude Sunnis from political life in Iraq and expand Iranian influence.
The United States launched the effort to remove senior Baath figures from public life shortly after the 2003 invasion. Last January, however, parliament approved legislation relaxing the ban in a U.S.-backed move to reconcile Shiites and Sunnis.
But many Shiites, who suffered under the former regime, resent any moves to restore Baath Party figures to government jobs, especially those in the security services.
Last month, a government report shown to The Associated Press showed that 123 former intelligence and security officers had been quietly reinstated into their jobs after the new law went into effect.
Reaction to al-Lami's arrest was sharply divided along sectarian lines.
Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite and former Pentagon favorite once viewed by Washington as a possible successor to Saddam, condemned the arrest, saying that al-Lami had played "a great essential role" in "fighting and confronting Saddam's regime despite the risks that surrounded him."
Chalabi, who spearheaded the first moves against Baath members, called for al-Lami's release and said in a statement that his arrest showed that U.S.-led forces pay "no attention to Iraqi human rights."
But Sunni legislator Mohammed al-Daini accused al-Lami and others of sectarian bias and links to Iran.
"The Americans know very well that such people were brought up and trained in Iranian intelligence system," al-Daini said without offering evidence. "The detention of al-Lami is part of a chain of events that will lead to the uncovering of others."
Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, spokesman for the main Sunni bloc in parliament, said the Sunni community was "looking forward to the results of the investigation" into al-Lami's arrest because "it is unlikely that he was working alone."
U.S. military attention believes the special groups are breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is now in Iran. Al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire in August 2007 but some factions refused to accept the order and have continued attacks.
On Thursday, al-Sadr released a statement saying his largely disbanded Mahdi Army militia would extend that cease-fire "until further notice" and that anyone who violates the truce would no longer be considered part of his militia.
Last month, al-Sadr announced he was transforming his militia into a social welfare body with a few guerrilla cells to attack U.S. troops if Washington doesn't agree to leave Iraq. The announcement followed setbacks in battles with the U.S.-supported Iraqi army in Baghdad, Basra and Amarah.
Separately, the U.S. military said an American soldier died of wounds he received after coming under fire while patrolling northern Baghdad on Wednesday. Another U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack while on patrol Thursday in Baghdad, the military said.