Iraq's defence ministry said yesterday it had broken up an al-Qaeda cell that was working to produce poison gas at two locations in the capital for future attacks at home and abroad.
The group of five people built two facilities to produce sarin and mustard gas, using instructions from another al-Qaeda group, spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.
They were prepared to launch attacks domestically, and also had a network to smuggle the toxins to neighbouring countries, Europe and North America, Askari said.
The arrest of the cell members was possible because of co-operation between Iraqi and foreign intelligence services, he added.
Three workshops for manufacturing the chemical agents were uncovered, he said.
Remote-controlled toy planes were also seized.
All of the arrested men had confessed to the plot, and said they had received instructions from another al-Qaeda offshoot.
Askari said the cell members had managed to acquire some raw materials and formulas, but they had not produced any active chemical weapons. It was unclear how far along they were in their efforts.
Reporters were shown four of the alleged suspects, who were hooded, and a table displaying beakers and jars of chemical compounds. At one point, soldiers wearing gas masks and gloves brought out containers containing what was said to be chemical ingredients.
This came as the United Nations mission to Iraq said yesterday that more than 1,000 people were killed in violence across the country last month - the highest monthly death toll in years.
Violence in Iraq increased sharply in April and May, with bombings in civilian areas growing more frequent and escalating fears that widespread sectarian conflict may once again break out in the country. The bloodshed accelerated after a deadly April 23 crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest in the northern town of Hawija.
On Friday, authorities imposed a sweeping ban on temporary licence plates for cars across the Iraqi capital in an apparent effort to thwart car bombings. Many roads were also closed throughout Baghdad yesterday.
The security measures come as Shiites begin making an annual pilgrimage to the shrine of eighth-century saint Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in Baghdad. Pilgrims traditionally walk to the twin-domed shrine in Kazimiyah, where al-Kadhim is buried.
Additional reporting by Associated Press