Iraqi security forces have disrupted a 9/11-style plot by Al-Qaeda in Iraq to fly hijacked planes into Shiite religious shrines, Iraqi and US officials said. Iraqi security officials said on Wednesday they temporarily shut down at least two airports and have arrested two men _ one of the intended pilots and an airport worker _ suspected in the plot, which appeared aimed at undermining the country’s stability while US troops prepare to go home.
Two US intelligence officials in Washington confirmed the plot but said it did not appear to be fully planned out, nor was it clear that militants would be able to carry out any attacks.
Airports in Baghdad and Najaf were shuttered last week as intelligence officials said they learned of the plot. The airport in Najaf remains closed because of its proximity to the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, one of the most revered Shiite religious mosques in the world, one of the officials said.
Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi told reporters in Najaf that the airport “will be reopened soon, after discussing the needed security measures”. He said the intelligence about the attacks is unclear but “at the same time, we can’t neglect them”. He did not confirm or comment on any of the specific allegations. Details of the alleged plot were sketchy, and at least one Iraqi official denied it.
Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari acknowledged general “threats” but denied that there was a specific plot to hit holy shrines.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been blamed for a recent violence in Baghdad, and security officials believe the terror network is trying to regroup during the political disarray left by the March 7 parliamentary elections, which failed to produce a clear winner.
Targeting holy sites has long been a hallmark of the Sunni-dominated Al-Qaeda in Iraq.