Top leadership in Iraq's Shiite-dominated government fell into deeper disarray, with an official close to the prime minister disavowing an arrest warrant issued against the country's most influential Sunni leader.
The official, with intimate knowledge of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's thinking, said Friday the Iraqi leader had not known his interior minister was planning to call for the arrest of the revered leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheik Harith al-Dhari.
"We will work so that the arrest warrant is not acted upon," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the internal Shiite conflict.
For his part, al-Dhari said the government's bid to arrest him was illegal, and his spokesman urged Sunni politicians to quit the parliament and government.
The brewing political crisis threatened the already shaky al-Maliki government and could provoke an even more violent surge in Iraq's sectarian conflict as the country teeters on the edge of civil war.
The new upheaval began late Thursday when Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced on state television that he had issued the arrest warrant on grounds that al-Dhari allegedly incited terrorism and violence.
The move enraged moderate members of Iraq's Sunni minority, who had already threatened over recent weeks to walk out of government and parliament and take up arms. They have charged the al-Maliki government with discrimination and failure to act on measures important to the Sunni community and necessary for national reconciliation.
Sunni anger was clear throughout the country with politicians and demonstrations condemning the warrant. A Sunni politician said the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni bloc that holds 44 seats in parliament, will hold a meeting Saturday to discuss how it will react.
Speaking in the Jordanian capital of Amman, al-Dhari, who has been living outside Iraq for months, said the warrant was timed to hide the government's embarrassment over "its security failures."
Al-Dhari, who is about 65 and is an outspoken critic of al-Maliki and the U.S. occupation, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television that he had not received a copy of the warrant, adding that he heard the news from the media.
"Had there been clear and fixed charges and had there been a clear legal authority I would have gone to Iraq tomorrow and stood in front of it and clarified who is the terrorist and who is not," al-Dhari said.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said this week that al-Dhari was a hard-liner with "nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition."
Al-Dhari responded Friday, saying: "I do not consider Talabani as Iraq's president and he doesn't represent the Iraqis. Talabani is part of the government. He feels as they feel and he fears what they fear," he told The Associated Press.
The warrant was issued two days after gunmen kidnapped scores of people from a Higher Education Ministry building in Baghdad, leading Sunni and Shiite factions of the government to provide competing claims over how many hostages were released.
The arrest warrant against al-Dhari produced similar confusion.
After al-Bolani announced the warrant was issued, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, also a Shiite, sought to minimize it as an "investigation warrant." The spokesman said it is up to judicial authorities to issue an arrest warrant.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the Cabinet and the president's office had no knowledge about the arrest warrant. He called for an urgent meeting of political leaders to review the government's work.