The jet left Baghdad on Wednesday and had just crossed the ribbon of blue indicating the Euphrates River thousands of feet below when it arced back toward the Iraqi capital.
Upon landing at Baghdad’s airport, a security guard boarded the plane and left with a high-profile passenger, parliament member Mohammed Daini. But Daini’s whereabouts remains a mystery as the political clamor over allegations of crimes, including murder and gold heists, escalates and threatens to rev up sectarian polarization in parliament.
The plainclothes security guard who escorted Daini, a Sunni Arab politician, off the plane was part of his personal security contingent, as were the security officers who drove away with him shortly before a nationwide manhunt began.
Late Wednesday, Iraqi security force spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta Moussawi said police were scouring the country and watching the borders for Daini, who faced arrest after fellow lawmakers’ vote earlier in the day to lift his parliamentary immunity. The order to turn his flight around came from the prime minister’s office, shortly before the vote.
But the lifting of immunity apparently did not come early enough for police to be ready when the Iraqi Airways jet landed in Baghdad. The lawmaker had time to evade what he says is a politically charged indictment being steered by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-led government.
The strange case erupted Sunday when Moussawi announced that Daini, a frequent critic of Maliki’s government and opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, was a key suspect in the April 2007 bombing of the national parliament.
At a news conference, Moussawi showed footage of purported confessions by two bodyguards of Daini detailing heinous crimes they said were ordered by the lawmaker: massacres of innocents in his home region, Diyala province; holdups of gold sellers in Baghdad; launchings of mortar rounds into the fortified Green Zone; and the parliament bombing, which killed Sunni lawmaker Mohammed Awad.
Daini responded with a news conference of his own the next day, denying wrongdoing and saying his guards had been forced to confess. “This is an alarm bell” for all opposition lawmakers, Daini said.
He did not answer his phone Wednesday night, but earlier told the Associated Press that he was going to visit relatives in Jordan when his flight was turned back.
One of those on board was fellow lawmaker Maysoon Damluji, who had tea with him and two other national lawmakers at the airport before the flight left about noon.
“While we were flying over the desert, after crossing the Euphrates River, the plane returned back to the airport,” Damluji said. She said the jet sat on the runway for about 45 minutes before taking off again for Amman, the Jordanian capital. This time, it got there.
Daini had been associated with Iraq’s major Sunni political parties but lately had become an independent in the 275-member body. Ahmed Alwani, a fellow Sunni lawmaker, criticized the way Daini’s immunity was lifted and complained that it was not on the agenda and was rushed through. Alwani called it a constitutional violation to order the jet turned around before Daini’s immunity was formally lifted.
“I am not defending Daini, but we want the constitution to be applied,” said Alwani, adding that there were politicians of various stripes with shady pasts. “We want the law to be applied to all.”
Critics of Maliki’s government have accused him of using his powers to persecute politicians who cross him.
Last year, the parliament voted to lift the immunity of a secular Sunni Arab lawmaker and government critic, Mithal Alusi, after he visited Israel. Alusi hired a lawyer and won the case, forcing lawmakers to back down. Attempts have also been made to lift the immunity of other prominent Sunni politicians to pursue charges related to sectarian crimes.
Times staff writers Usama Redha and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.