Iraq's Sunni leaders accused Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki of a political crackdown after troops raided the finance minister's office and home, threatening to reignite a crisis a year after the last American troops left.
The raids and detention of the Sunni minister's staff came hours after President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who often mediated among the fractious Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs, left for Germany after suffering a stroke that could end his moderating influence in Iraqi politics.
Politicians and authorities gave conflicting accounts of the incident, but it was reminiscent of a year ago when Iraqi authorities sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and his bodyguards, accusing them of running death squads just as U.S. troops packed up.
Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi, a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, said late on Thursday that more than 100 bodyguards and staff were snatched illegally by militias, and blamed Maliki for orchestrating the raids to target opponents.
Maliki's office said only six bodyguards were arrested under counter terrorism laws.
The Hashemi case plunged the fragile power-sharing deal among Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds into turmoil, with Sunni politicians boycotting parliament. Hashemi later fled to Turkey and was sentenced to death in absentia.
"This confirms there is continued systematic targeting of the Sunni symbols and leaders participating in the political process," Iraqiya leaders said in a statement.
They called on their supporters to protest peacefully after Friday prayers. Esawi said lawmakers would seek a vote of no confidence in Maliki.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said: "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."
Ali al-Moussawi, Maliki's media advisor, said the judiciary had issued arrest warrants for six of the minister's bodyguards and accused rival politicians of trying to stir tensions by linking the case to the premier.
"The law and judiciary for them have no value, they see only political differences," Moussawi said. "They blame Maliki for everything."
STEADYING HAND GONE?
Violence in Iraq is down from the days of intercommunal slaughter that erupted soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
But many Sunni leaders feel they have been sidelined from power-sharing by Maliki as he consolidates his authority under a constitution that grants the premier wide powers.
Talabani, 79, a former guerrilla who was admitted to hospital on Monday, had often mediated among Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, and in the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region.
His illness has fuelled concerns of a succession crisis and tension between Arabs and ethnic Kurds spilling into violence.
Maliki, an ally of Iran who spent years fighting against Saddam's rule, is struggling with Sunni, Kurdish and even Shi'ite rivals over the power-sharing agreement meant to balance posts among religious sects and ethnic Kurds.
The PM's rivals tried earlier this year to organize a vote of no confidence against him. It failed because Talabani did not back the vote and because of splits among Maliki's foes.
Before the raids, most politicians were publicly wishing Talabani a speedy recovery. But behind the scenes, some senior Sunni political leaders suggested they may present their own candidate for the presidency in a challenge to the Kurds.
Under the constitution, parliament elects a new president and a vice president takes over in the interim. The power-sharing deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd while two vice president posts are shared by a Sunni and a Shi'ite.
The Sunni vice president, Hashemi, is a fugitive. The other vice president is Khudair al-Khuzaie, seen by some as a hardline Shi'ite from Maliki's alliance.
Among Kurds, former Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Salih is favoured as a leader with ties across Iraq's sectarian divide. But there could also be a struggle within Iraqi Kurdistan, where Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party shares power with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.