BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities said Friday they've arrested 10 bodyguards of the country's Sunni finance minister in a terrorism-related sweep, the first official confirmation in a case that is inflaming the nation's simmering political and sectarian tensions.
Protests broke out in response to the detentions in at least two cities in Sunni-dominated western Anbar province, and the United States said in unusually strong terms that it is pressing Iraq's Shiite-led government to uphold its commitment to the law.
In the year since the last American troops left Iraq, the country has been wracked by sectarian violence and political stalemate. Iraq's Sunni vice president is on the run after being convicted in absentia and sentenced to death on terror charges, and bloody attacks by Sunni extremists against Shiites still take place frequently.
Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuse him of unfairly sidelining Sunni political rivals while seeking to consolidate power in the hands of Iraq's majority Shiites. Al-Maliki's government says it is committed to the rule of law and does not follow a sectarian agenda.
Late on Thursday, Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi accused an unspecified "militia force" of "kidnapping" members of his staff and said at a news conference that he holds al-Maliki personally responsible for their safety. Al-Issawi suggested the prime minister had knowledge of the moves against his employees and urged the parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against him.
Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar told The Associated Press Friday that the chief of al-Issawi's protection force was arrested on Wednesday on the strength of confessions obtained by the authorities. The chief had confessed that he took part in terrorist attacks, and nine other bodyguards were held while the investigation proceeds, Bayrkdar said.
The Interior Ministry posted the names and arrest warrants of the suspects on its official website, including the security chief, identified as Col. Mahmoud al-Issawi.
The arrests are a concern for Washington. American officials have been engaged with Iraqi political leaders since hearing about the detentions and have urged the government to uphold commitments to due process and the rule of law, according to a U.S. Embassy official.
"Any actions from any party that subverts the rule of law or provokes ethnic or sectarian tension risks undermining the significant progress Iraq has made toward peace and stability," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The arrests come at a sensitive time for Iraq. The country's ailing President Jalal Talabani was flown to Germany on Thursday for medical treatment following what has been described as a serious stroke earlier this week. The 79-year-old president is widely seen as a unifying figure with the clout to mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
On Friday, al-Maliki defended the arrests as legal and based on warrants issued by judicial authorities. He accused al-Issawi of fabricating a political crisis for personal gain and criticized him for referring to security forces as militias.
"Sunnis, Shiites and all the people must know that carrying out arrest warrants against suspects doesn't mean targeting a specific sect," al-Maliki said in a statement.
Al-Issawi is a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which has been in a long-running row with al-Maliki over power sharing. Tensions have been on the rise since an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, one of al-Issawi's political allies, just as the last U.S. troops were leaving a year ago.
Al-Hashemi has been given several death sentences over the past year after Iraqi courts found him guilty in absentia in multiple terrorism-related cases. He is accused of running death squads to target government officials and Shiite pilgrims, a charge that he has denied and sees as a political vendetta. He is now living in exile in neighboring Turkey.
Al-Hashemi voiced solidarity with al-Issawi in a statement Friday. He also lashed out at al-Maliki, saying the "the tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents."
The prime minister's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, dismissed that charge as meaningless. He said the issue of the finance ministry guards' arrest had been blown out of proportion, adding that the government is committed to ensuring that proper legal procedures are followed.
Iraq's Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, meanwhile, threatened that the Iraqiya bloc could withdraw from the political process altogether if lawmakers and independent bodies are not allowed to monitor the investigation involving al-Issawi's staff.
In Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah to protest the arrests, according to police officials and a local resident. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the protests. The witness spoke without giving his name out of concern for his safety.
Some of the protesters fired gunshots into the air. Others carried banners reading "Al-Maliki and terrorism are two faces for the same coin" and "Do not provoke us because we can resist," the police officials and the witness said.