* Sunni finance minister's bodyguards detained
* Sunni protests staged after Friday prayers
* President Talabani in Germany after suffering stroke
By Patrick Markey and Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD, Dec 21 Sunni leaders in Iraq accused
Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of a crackdown on Friday
after troops detained a Sunni minister's bodyguards, setting off
protests in one province and threatening to reignite a political
The incident came hours after President Jalal Talabani, a
Kurd who has mediated among Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions,
left for Germany after suffering a stroke that may end his
steadying influence over politics.
Talabani's absence and political tension has renewed
pressure on Iraq's fragile power-sharing government, which is
split among sects and ethnic Kurds and has stumbled from crisis
to crisis since U.S. soldiers withdrew in December 2011.
Maliki has often managed to play his rivals off against one
another and strengthen his alliances in the complex political
landscape before provincial elections next year and a
parliamentary vote in 2014.
Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets in the
Sunni stronghold of Anbar after prayers, blocking a highway in
Falluja to demand Maliki's resignation and waving banners
reading: "Resistance is still in our veins".
Sunni leaders warned they might withdraw from government and
called for a vote of no confidence in Maliki, whom they accuse
of abusing his power to sideline election rivals.
"My message to the prime minister is that you are a man who
does not believe in partnership and does not respect the law and
the constitution," Finance Minister Rafaie Esawi said.
Politicians and the authorities gave conflicting accounts of
the incident, but it evoked an episode a year ago when Iraq
moved to arrest Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, accusing
him of running death squads just as U.S. troops left.
Maliki, who forged his political career in exile and
resistance to Saddam Hussein, called for calm, urging opponents
not to colour a judicial decision with politics.
"Let Sunni and Shi'ite know that the execution of judicial
orders against some accused does not mean the targeting of a
certain sect," Maliki said. "We call on all to stop any
statement or voice compromising the unity of the country."
Esawi said more than 100 bodyguards and staff had been
snatched illegally, and blamed Maliki. The prime minister's
office said only 10 bodyguards had been arrested and that the
warrants had been issued under counter-terrorism laws.
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
HASHEMI PART 2?
A year ago, the Hashemi case plunged Iraq's delicate
power-sharing deal into turmoil, with Sunnis boycotting
parliament and cabinet in protest at what they said was a
political witch-hunt against Sunni opponents.
Hashemi accused the government of torturing his bodyguards
and fled only to be sentenced to death in absentia.
Violence in Iraq is down sharply from the days of
intercommunal slaughter that erupted soon after the 2003
U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam. But
sectarianism still runs deep in Iraqi politics.
With the political system and much lawmaking paralysed by
infighting among the factions, Maliki has said he may try to
form a majority government with some Sunni leaders and end the
"You cannot outright dismiss electioneering," said Ramzy
Mardini at the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut.
"If Maliki can't co-opt Sunnis to form a majority governing
coalition, he's going to make sure the Shi'ites are consolidated
Talabani, 79, a former militant who was admitted to hospital
on Monday, had often mediated among Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds,
as well as in the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and
the autonomous Kurdistan region.
He was in a stable condition in a Berlin hospital and was
responding well to treatment, his office said on Friday.
Foes of Maliki, an ally of Iran, tried earlier this year to
organise a vote of no confidence in him. It failed when Talabani
did not back it and due to splits among Maliki's rivals.
The Kurdish leader had also helped ease tensions between
Maliki and the northern Kurdistan region, after both sent troops
from their respective armies to face off along territories
dotted with oilfields where both claim rights.
While most politicians are publicly wishing Talabani a
speedy recovery, behind the scenes, some senior Sunni political
leaders have 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 presidential posts are shared by a Sunni and a
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.