Arrest of Minister's Bodyguards Prompts Protests in Iraq

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BAGHDAD -- Sporadic protests erupted Friday in Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq after 10 bodyguards to Rafe al-Essawi, the finance minister and a top Sunni politician, were arrested on terrorism charges in an episode that further deepened a political crisis that first flared a year ago, after the American military departed.

The targeting once again of a Sunni leader by the Shiite-dominated central government threatened to further hinder Iraq's halting process of sectarian reconciliation just as the country's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader and one of the few politicians capable of exerting a sense of calm over the country's squabbling factions, was rushed to Germany for medical treatment after a stroke that officials said left him in a coma.

The arrest of the bodyguards on allegations of terrorism was reminiscent of the campaign last year against Tariq al-Hashimi, a leading Sunni politician who was then a vice president, on charges of running death squads. Mr. Hashimi fled the country and has since been tried, convicted in absentia and sentenced to death three times.

Many here were left wondering if Mr. Essawi himself, like Mr. Hashimi, could soon be arrested. Many of Mr. Hashimi's bodyguards were convicted in a case that critics of the central government say relied on torture to secure confessions.

As Sunnis took to the streets in protest on Friday, they expressed a rising sense that their sect does not have a meaningful voice anymore in the corridors of power here.

"Hashimi is gone, now Essawi, and we have no Sunni leader left to follow," said Ahmed Hashim, a shop owner in Adhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad where several hundred people protested after Friday Prayer.

At the protest, an imam in Adhamiya, referring to Mr. Talabani, said in a speech: "We wish from God that the sick man in bed will recover and wake up so he can solve our crises and calm things down. We condemn the arrest of these guards. This is targeting the Sunnis, and we will not be silent this time."

In Falluja, in the Sunni province of Anbar, tribal leaders and an estimated 2,000 citizens protested the arrests. "This targeting all the Sunnis," Sheik Hamid Ahmed said in a speech in Falluja. "It was Hashimi first. Essawi now. Who knows who it will be next? The conspiracy against the Sunnis will never stop. We will not keep silent for this."

In response to the crackdown on Mr. Essawi's guards, leaders from Iraqiya, the Sunni-dominated political bloc, threatened to pull out of the government and called for a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, which some parties tried and failed to accomplish this year.

The circumstances of the arrests were murky, as conflicting accounts emerged, with one version offered by the government and another by Mr. Essawi. In a news conference Mr. Essawi said that "militia forces" had raided his office and home and "kidnapped" his guards. He said he tried to call Mr. Maliki but that the prime minister had turned his phone off.

"This is a new farce and a new kind of crisis dragging Iraq into the abyss," Mr. Essawi said.

The Interior Ministry, in a statement, said that Mr. Essawi's guards were arrested based on legitimate warrants. A statement from Iraq's Supreme Court, issued on state television, said that one of the guards had already confessed to carrying out terrorist attacks in cooperation with Mr. Hashimi's guards.

Mr. Maliki, who has weathered the continuing political crisis this year and emerged more popular, according to some polls, and with a tighter grip over the military and courts, sought to portray the latest arrests as a nonsectarian judicial proceeding aimed at securing the nation from terrorism.

"All Iraqis -- Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and all other sects and nationalities -- must know that we will have no security without the rule of law, and that it must apply to everyone," Mr. Maliki said.

Duraid Adnan reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Essex Junction, Vt.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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