Iraqi authorities ordered the mid-flight return of a plane carrying a Sunni lawmaker accused of directing a private terror cell, forcing him back to Baghdad on Wednesday hours before parliament lifted his immunity and cleared the way for his arrest.
Mohammed al-Dayni faces allegations that he masterminded a string of attacks including a 2007 homicide bombing inside the parliament building and mortar strike on Baghdad's Green Zone.
Al-Dayni has strongly denied the charges, claiming they are part of a campaign by the Shiite-led government to silence critics. He has frequently spoken out against alleged rights abuses of Sunni prisoners and suspected Iranian influence over the nation's Shiite leaders.
The showdown over al-Dayni risks reopening Sunni-Shiite rifts after U.S.-backed efforts for political reconciliation. His supporters have called for a full-scale probe of all parliament members suspected of links to sectarian violence.
Wisem al-Zeidi, a top parliament aide, said majority of lawmakers at an emergency session voted to lift al-Dayni's immunity from prosecution. He did not immediately give further details of the vote breakdown.
Al-Dayni claims he was traveling to Jordan to see family when authorities ordered the Iraqi Airways jet to return to Baghdad just as it was about to leave Iraqi airspace.
"I was banned from traveling ... I am nervous, but I'm not afraid," he told The Associated Press by telephone after his plane landed back in Baghdad.
A number of Iraqi political figures facing charges of corruption or violence have fled to neighboring Jordan or Syria.
Videotaped interrogations of two former bodyguards — one also al-Dayni's nephew — were released last week, implicating him as the ringleader of a network that waged a nearly three-year reign of violence.
Iraq's government, meanwhile, welcomed reports of a U.S. combat troop withdrawal by August 2010.
"The Iraqi troops are ready to take responsibility. There is nothing to worry about and the withdrawal will be carried out in coordination between the two sides," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, one of the Iraqi prime minister's top advisers.
President Barack Obama was expected to order all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by August of next year. An announcement by Obama could come as early as this week, a senior White House official told the AP on Tuesday.
Obama's announcement will speed up the timeline of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, which took effect Jan. 1, calling for American troops to withdraw from Iraq's cities by June 30 and completely pull out troops by the end of 2011.
But the withdrawal of troops under Obama's plan would still have U.S. troops in Iraq well after parliamentary elections this year, which military officials have said is one of the next big security tests. There are more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Reaction among Iraqis was mixed.
"I have no trust with Iraqi security forces that they could keep security because army and security forces were built on a sectarian basis," sad Thabit Mohammed Jassim, a 40-year-old Sunni shop owner in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Jassim said he believed violence would likely climb after American combat troops leave Iraq.
"Obama wants to withdraw not for Iraqis, but because of economic problems they face internally and of hardships his troops are facing in Iraq," he said.
But Hussein Jassim Mohammed, a 35-year-old Shiite from Baghdad, said he would like to see U.S. troops leave sooner rather than later.
"We hope the withdrawal will take place sooner, before the given timetable," he said, adding that it was "a good step for Iraqis to secure" their own country.
Mohammed said there were some who worried about an increase in violence, but said it was time for "security forces to live up to their responsibility."