Iraqi commandos backed by an arrest warrant raided the house of Iraq’s culture minister Tuesday in connection with the 2005 slaying of two sons of a maverick Sunni Muslim politician.
The arrest warrant and raid provoked an outcry from the minister’s Sunni Arab political bloc and threatened to complicate the uphill effort to pass legislation, including an oil revenue-sharing measure, sought by the Bush administration.
An Iraqi court prepared the warrant several days ago against Asad Kamal Hashimi after two men arrested last month told authorities that Hashimi had ordered them to assassinate Mithal Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh told the satellite television channel Al Arabiya.
Alusi’s two sons, Amal and Gamal, were killed Feb. 8, 2005, when gunmen apparently trying to kill the politician opened fire on his home in west Baghdad.
Hashimi was not home early Tuesday when the police commandos conducted their raid, but several of his bodyguards were arrested, said the National Accordance Front, the political bloc with which the culture minister is allied.
Alusi said Hashimi was hiding in the Green Zone, the fortified enclosure that is home to the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi government and thousands of Iraqi civilians.
“We have to respect and accept the justice,” Alusi said, warning that the government should not cut a deal to ease tensions over the prospective arrest of a Sunni Cabinet minister.
Alusi said Hashimi was the imam at a mosque near Alusi’s house in the Qughad neighborhood at the time of the killings. Hashimi, he said, delivered sermons calling for the death of participants in Iraq’s January 2005 elections, which most Sunni Arabs boycotted.
Alusi has a history of cutting against the grain. Returning to Baghdad from exile in Germany, he headed a committee that purged thousands of Iraqis from government jobs because of their membership in Iraq’s ousted ruling party.
He allied himself with Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, the kingmakers in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and criticized the growing radicalism in his own Sunni community.
Alusi said two witnesses to his sons’ deaths were killed and a third seriously injured Monday by gunmen in separate attacks. The wounded man later identified one of the gunmen as a bodyguard for Hashimi.
The case of the culture minister has come to epitomize the bilious atmosphere in Iraq’s parliament and national unity government, in which Shiite and Sunni politicians regularly trade accusations of killings.
Hashimi’s bloc, known as Tawafiq, accused the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry of vandalizing Hashimi’s home during its raid Tuesday. The bloc said in a statement that authorities had tortured and sexually assaulted the two suspects in the case to extract confessions about Hashimi’s involvement.
Tawafiq said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had agreed to its request that an impartial committee investigate the charges against the culture minister and had freed the bodyguards arrested in Tuesday’s raid.
Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said the culture minister would be brought to court to answer murder charges.
Hashimi said the warrant was a discriminatory move by the Shiite-led government.
“When they want to get rid of anybody, the easiest way for them to do that is to charge him with terrorist activities,” Hashimi, speaking by telephone, told a journalist with the satellite television channel Al Jazeera, the Associated Press reported. “They have ready-made charges, and they use them against us so that they can chase us out of the country.”
Hashimi is a member of the General Congress of the People of Iraq, one of three parties that make up Tawafiq, a powerful Sunni bloc holding 44 seats in the 275-member parliament.
The party has been hounded by charges of aiding in the displacement of Shiites. An arrest warrant has been issued against two sons of Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent member of the party and a senior member of Tawafiq, in connection with forced expulsions of Shiites from the west Baghdad neighborhood of Adil, said Sami Askari, a Shiite lawmaker and advisor to Maliki.
An Iraqi website quoted Dulaimi as telling U.S.-funded Radio Sawa that a deal had been struck for the culture minister to leave the country and then resign. The account could not be immediately confirmed.
Iraqis and political observers were worried Tuesday about the effect Hashimi’s case would have on the deadlocked parliament, which has failed to pass measures meant to promote national reconciliation. The Bush administration has established passage of such bills as benchmarks for judging the progress of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
“Obviously, this doesn’t come at a good time,” said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.
Maliki’s Cabinet is poised to present two key legislative proposals to parliament, Othman said. They are to address the division of the nation’s oil wealth and the easing of restrictions on government employment and pensions for former members of Hussein’s Baath Party.
“There was very little movement toward reconciliation to start with, not even progress in achieving deals on key issues,” said Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group think tank. “So every little event is just going to be one more nail in the coffin of the security plan and its political objectives.”
Sectarian violence continued Tuesday. A Sunni tribal sheik was killed in a drive-by shooting in southwest Baghdad, police said.
Also Tuesday, an Al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a hotel bombing Monday in Baghdad that killed at least five sheiks who had supported efforts to arm Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Al Anbar to fight the Al Qaeda in Iraq group, Reuters news agency reported.
In the city of Diwaniya, about 95 miles south of Baghdad, clashes erupted between Shiite gunmen and U.S.-led troops, city officials and witnesses said.
A U.S. Marine was killed Tuesday in combat operations in Al Anbar, the U.S. military said. At least 3,566 American troops have died in the Iraq theater since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to the icasualties.orgwebsite.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Wail Alhafith contributed to this report.