Arrest warrant for Iraqi culture minister prompts Sunni outrage

Iraqi commandos raided the home of a Sunni Cabinet member Tuesday after a warrant was issued for his arrest, prompting outrage from Sunni politicians and dealing another blow to US-backed reconciliation efforts within the Shiite-led government.The move against Culture Minister Asad Kamal Hashimi came after he was identified by two suspected gunmen as the mastermind of a February 8, 2005, ambush against a secular politician Mithal Alusi, an Iraqi government spokesman said. Alusi escaped unharmed but two of his sons were killed.

“The two who planned and carried out the killings of Mithal Alusi’s two sons confessed that they took orders from him,” Ali Dabbagh said. He added that Hashimi was a mosque imam at the time.

The arrest warrant came to light after Iraqi security forces staged a predawn raid on Hashimi’s heavily guarded home, detaining some 40 guards.

Hashimi was not at home at the time. Muhanad Essawi, a spokesman for the main Sunni parliamentary bloc, said the minister was being kept in an undisclosed safe place in Baghdad and Sunni politicians were asking the government to put an end to the case.

Hashimi is the first serving Cabinet minister to face arrest. The deputy health minister was arrested in February for alleged ties to Shiite gunmen.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has promised not to let political or sectarian considerations stop him from cracking down on violence, but the move threatened to set back efforts to bring the disaffected Sunni minority into the political process, a step the US says is key to stem support for the insurgency and enable American troops to go home. Hashimi’s party, the Congress of the People of Iraq, condemned the arrest warrant and warned the government to avoid “playing with fire” by “fabricating lies to exclude Sunni politicians and officials from the Iraqi arena”. A government official said the warrant was issued after culture minister failed to respond to a summons by judicial authorities two days ago.

The official said that Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zubaie, a Sunni, asked Maliki about the raid during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday but the prime minister told him it was a legal matter. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

In a telephone interview with Jazeera, Hashimi accused the government of pursuing him as part of a campaign to sideline Sunni politicians.

“When they want to get rid of anybody, the easiest way for them to do that is to charge him with terrorist activities,” Hashimi said. “They have ready-made charges and they use them against us so that they can chase us out of the country.” The Iraqi Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni bloc in the legislature, said the warrant was based on statements made under torture.

“We are fed up and there is no room for patience and we wish that this mistake would be fixed and not repeated,” the Front said. The statement added that Maliki had promised the minister would not be arrested, although officials in the prime minister’s office denied the claim.

The Sunni community, which was dominant under Saddam Hussein, has been struggling for a greater role in government. At the same time, hardline Sunni insurgent groups have been targeting Sunnis who want to join the political process.

A Sunni sheikh, Hamid Abdul Farhan Shujairi, was gunned down Tuesday in a mainly Sunni area of Baghdad, police said. A member of his tribe, Akram Shujairi, said the sheikh had attended a conference several weeks ago on supporting the government and fighting Al Qaeda.

The attack occurred one day after a suicide bomber slipped into the busy Mansour Hotel in Baghdad and blew himself up, killing as many as six tribal leaders who oppose Al Qaeda.

US Marine Maj. Jeff Pool, a military spokesman in western Iraq, said Sunni sheikhs from Anbar province were meeting with Shiite sheikhs to talk about reconciliation.

Sectarian violence persisted in Iraq, with at least 41 Iraqis killed or found dead nationwide, including a top Baghdad University official who was shot to death while being driven home from work in the capital and a university student who was killed after final exams in the northern city of Mosul.

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