10 arrested after Iraqi Finance Ministry abductions, state media reports

Baghdad (CNN) — Nine bodyguards for Iraq’s finance minister have been arrested, a spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council told Iraqi state TV on Friday, a day after the minister said 150 members of his staff and guards had been kidnapped.

Spokesman Abdul Sattar al-Berqdar told Iraqiya State TV that the security commander of the finance minister’s protection regiment had also been arrested two days ago, according a legal arrest warrant.

He told the channel that the security chief had admitted during interrogation that he committed “terrorist” acts.

Finance Minister Rafei al-Essawi said Thursday that he holds Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responsible for the safety of the 150 people seized when “a militia force” raided his house, headquarters and ministry in Baghdad.

Members of al-Essawi’s staff and guards were among those kidnapped from the ministry Thursday, the finance minister said. He also said that his computers and documents were searched at his house and headquarters.

He said his security commander had been arrested Wednesday at a Baghdad checkpoint for unknown reasons and that the compound now had no security.

Al-Essawi, who has a large base of Sunni support, said he had tried to reach al-Maliki, a Shiite, with no success.

“My message to the prime minister: You are a man who does not respect partnership at all, a man who does not respect the law and the constitution, and I personally hold you fully responsible for the safety of the kidnapped people,” al-Essawi said Thursday.

He called for the safe release of his staff and guards and for a no-confidence vote against al-Maliki in parliament.

Al-Maliki on Friday rejected the claims made by al-Essawi, suggesting that some politicians chose to “fabricate political crises” when they disagreed with the action taken by authorities, judicial or not.

“Based on arrest warrants issued by the Iraqi judiciary, a police force has carried out its duty and arrested 10 people of the finance minister’s bodyguards after checking their identities, and they are now in the custody of the Iraqi judiciary,” al-Maliki said in a statement issued by his office.

“We were very surprised by linking the issue of detainees with the political differences and even by trying to drag the whole country toward sectarian strife,” he said.

He said the Iraqi people had already paid a high price for sectarian conflict and could not return to it, and he strongly criticized the finance minister for calling the Iraqi security forces “a militia force,” saying they sacrificed their lives to achieve stability and security in the country.

Earlier Friday, thousands of people protested against the arrest of the bodyguards in Falluja, a predominantly Sunni city west of Baghdad, and demanded the immediate release of those kidnapped.

They also chanted “Stop this charade,” referring to what they believe are al-Maliki’s actions.

The incident highlights a growing distrust between Sunni and Shiite politicians in Iraq, as well as concerns about the independence of Iraq’s judiciary.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is Sunni, addressed reporters Friday on behalf of the Iraqiya List, which won the largest number of seats in the March 2010 national elections.

“The Iraqiya List demands either to ensure the integrity and independence of the judiciary system in Iraq or it will withdraw completely from the Iraqi parliament and from the political process in general,” al-Mutlaq said.

The cross-sectarian Iraqiya List, headed by former Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, garnered most of the Sunni Arab vote.

Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 elections, leading to the emergence of a Shiite-led government. The move left the once-ruling minority disaffected, and that contributed to the bloody insurgency and sectarian warfare that gripped Iraq for years.

The apparent kidnappings follow the troubles of Iraq’s fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who was sentenced to death in September, accused in the deaths of a lawyer and an army general.

Al-Hashimi, who is also Sunni and now lives in Istanbul, denies the charges and says the accusations are politically motivated.

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani headed Thursday to Germany under the care of a specialized medical team for treatment, Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. Talabani’s office said the president is suffering from hardened arteries, but Othman said he had suffered a stroke.