BAGHDAD (AP) — Ten bodyguards of Iraq's Sunni finance minister are under arrest on terrorism-related charges, an Iraqi judicial official said Friday, in a case certain to inflame Iraq's political and sectarian tensions.
Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar told The Associated Press that the chief of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi's protection force was arrested on Wednesday on the strength of confessions made by some suspects. Bayrkdar said the chief confessed that he took part in terrorist attacks.
He added that nine other bodyguards were arrested and under investigation. He did not provide the men's names or give further details.
In the year since the last U.S. 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 happen frequently.
This week's arrests are a concern for Washington. American officials have been engaged with Iraqi political leaders since hearing about the detentions and have urged the Iraqi 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 and the important work the United States and Iraq are doing together," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
Word of the arrests emerged during a late-night news conference by al-Issawi on Thursday, just hours after Iraq's ailing president was flown to Germany for medical treatment following what has been described as a serious stroke. The 79-year-old president, Jalal Talabani, is widely seen as a unifying figure who is able to rise above Iraq's often bitter politics and mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
At the news conference, Al-Issawi angrily denounced what he called the kidnapping of his guards and members of his staff by a "militia force." He said he held the Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, responsible for their safety.
He blasted al-Maliki's government as one "that does not respect its institutions and sovereignty and that cannot live without crisis" and called on parliament to hold a vote of no confidence against him.
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 one of al-Issawi's political allies a year ago, just as the last U.S. troops were leaving. Political calculations ahead of provincial elections scheduled for April are also a factor.
On Friday, Iraq's Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq 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.
Al-Mutlaq called on all parties in Iraq to work against attempts to stoke sectarian conflict. The comments were an apparent reference to what many Sunnis see as efforts by the Shiite-led government to sideline them and consolidate power.
Al-Mutlak appeared at al-Issawi's Thursday news conference, along with Sunni Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, also of the Iraqiya bloc, has been given several death sentences over the past year after Iraqi courts found him guilty in absentia in multiple terrorism-related cases.
Last December, Iraqi security forces arrested dozens of al-Hashemi's guards and issued an arrest warrant against him. Al-Hashemi is accused of running death squads to target government officials and Shiite pilgrims, a charge that he has denied as a political vendetta. He is now living in neighboring Turkey.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed reporting.
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