Iraq's finance minister on Thursday accused a "militia force" of kidnapping members of his staff and said he holds the prime minister personally responsible for their safety.
Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi leveled the charges just hours after Iraq's ailing president was flown to Germany for medical treatment following a stroke. The 79-year-old president, Jalal Talabani, is widely seen as a unifying figure who is able to rise above Iraq's often bitter politics and mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Al-Issawi made the accusations in a late night press conference, where he called on parliament to hold a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
The move is certain to inflame Iraq's simmering political tensions, which have been heightened since an arrest warrant was issued against one of al-Issawi's political allies a year ago. Political rhetoric is heating up ahead of provincial elections scheduled for April.
Al-Issawi is a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki's main political rival. He was flanked during the televised address by senior members of the bloc, including the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who last year branded al-Maliki a dictator in a TV interview.
Al-Issawi blasted al-Maliki's government as one "that does not respect its institutions and sovereignty and that cannot live without crisis."
While he emphasized that he believes the detentions were carried out by militia members rather than state security forces, he suggested that the prime minister had knowledge of the move against his staff.
"Does al-Maliki want me to believe he had no idea about this? This was a deliberate and pre-mediated act," he charged.
A senior government security official said interior ministry forces carried out arrests of al-Issawi's bodyguards Thursday as part of a counterterrorism investigation, and that some of them have already been released. The official agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the operation to reporters.
Repeated attempts to reach al-Maliki's spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.
A year ago, bodyguards assigned to another senior member of Iraqiya, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, were arrested. Shortly afterwards, an arrest warrant was issued against al-Hashemi himself accusing him of orchestrating death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Al-Hashemi initially stayed at a guest house belonging to Talabani, but later fled the country and is now living in neighboring Turkey. Iraqi courts have since found him guilty in absentia and handed down multiple death sentences against him.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq's stricken president was flown to Germany for further medical treatment following a stroke.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that doctors have determined the president had a "very serious stroke," but that he is showing signs of improvement.
"He is starting to regain his senses. He is able to feel pain, and this is a sign of progress," Zebari said.
Talabani's spokesman, Nasser al-Ani, said the president is able to move some of his limbs and communicate with simple signals, but is unable to speak.
The decision to move Talabani to Germany was made after his condition was stabilized and he began to show signs of improvement, according to Iraqi officials.
Vice President Khudier al-Khuzaie, an Arab Shiite, will temporarily assume Talabani's duties during his absence, Zebari said.
Iraq's parliament has the authority to choose a new president should Talabani's office become vacant. The Kurds would likely insist on retaining the presidency to maintain the government's power-sharing balance.
Berlin's Charite hospital, the German capital's largest, confirmed Thursday that Talabani had been admitted to its Virchow Clinic but wouldn't give any details on his condition nor what he was being treated for, citing patient confidentiality.
In a statement on its official website, Talabani's office said the treatment he underwent in Baghdad "provided the right conditions for the transfer of (Talabani) out of the country for follow-up treatment in Germany." It gave no further details on his condition.
The presidency of Iraq is largely a ceremonial role. Al-Maliki is the head of government.
Talabani is overweight and has undergone several medical procedures in recent years, including heart surgery in 2008 and knee replacement surgery this year. He has previously received treatment in Germany.
Before he fell ill, Talabani was actively involved in trying to mediate in a crisis between Baghdad and the Kurds, who have their own fighters and considerable autonomy in their enclave in northern Iraq. The two sides last month moved additional troops into disputed areas along the Kurds' self-rule region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.
Last week, Talabani brokered a deal that calls on both sides to eventually withdraw troops from the contested areas, though there was no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
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