Lawmakers from parliament’s largest Sunni Arab bloc walked out of Saturday’s session to protest what they called the house arrest of their leader following the discovery of a car bomb near his compound.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said the keys to the vehicle were found on one of Adnan al-Dulaimi’s bodyguards. Al-Dulaimi’s son, Maki al-Maliki, and about 30 other people were arrested Friday.
The political storm over the alleged house arrest of one of Iraq’s most powerful Sunni politicians and the detentions have threatened to inflame sectarian tensions at a time when U.S. officials are pushing Iraqi politicians to take advantage of a recent decline in violence to forge power-sharing agreements among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Lawmakers said al-Dulaimi, a harsh critic of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told them Saturday that he was prevented by security forces from leaving his house in western Baghdad to come to parliament, which is located in the U.S.-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad.
His daughter, legislator Asmaa al-Dulaimi, also was blocked from leaving. She later told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Iraqi army troops had surrounded the compound and refused to allow in a convoy sent by al-Dulaimi’s Iraq Accordance Front to pick him up and take him to parliament.
Chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied in a telephone interview with state television Saturday that al-Dulaimi was under house arrest, but added that any proceedings against him would be carried out under the provisions of the constitution.
“Everyone is subject to the law whether he is a lawmaker or not and the government is adamant to be objective and neutral in dealing with this issue,” he said.
Sectarian undertones in debate
Saturday’s walkout followed a debate pitting lawmakers from the Iraq Accordance Front, which has 44 of parliament’s 275 seats, against Shiite legislators.
Shiite lawmakers suggested that al-Dulaimi’s guards played a part in forcing Shiite families out of the Baghdad Adil district, where the Sunni leader’s compound is located. Haidar al-Abadi, a Shiite legislator close to al-Maliki, said parliament had no right to debate a case under investigation.
The barbs took on sectarian undertones.
“Adnan al-Dulaimi stands accused,” declared another Shiite lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji. “His security guards could be members of al-Qaida and he’s unable to do anything about them.”
Sunni legislators accused their Shiite peers of waging a smear campaign against al-Dulaimi, arguing that placing him under house arrest violated the constitution.
“We declare our withdrawal from the house until the time when Adnan al-Dulaimi is allowed to come to parliament,” lawmaker Hashim al-Taie said.
Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, himself a member of the Accordance Front, said al-Maliki told him that al-Dulaimi was being kept at his home for his own safety since security forces have detained members of his personal security detail.
'A dangerous precedent'
However, al-Mashhadani also said a local Iraqi army commander reported there was an official arrest order for al-Dulaimi.
“It’s a dangerous precedent if a field commander places a lawmaker under house arrest without notifying the prime minister.”
Al-Mashhadani left the house when fellow Sunni Arab lawmakers walked out, but it was not immediately clear whether he was part of the protest.
The furor over al-Dulaimi was the latest in a series of setbacks to national reconciliation efforts encouraged by the United States to bring together Iraq’s rival Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish leaders.
This week, Arab and Kurdish lawmakers have clashed over oil agreements signed by the self-rule Kurdish region in northern Iraq with foreign companies without involving the central government. There have also been heated exchanges between opponents and supporters of a draft bill to reinstate into government jobs thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.