- Nuri al-Maliki rejects claims against him, says Iraq has seen enough sectarian strife
- Judicial spokesman says nine bodyguards and security chief have been arrested
- Iraqi finance minister says guards were taken from Baghdad offices
- Thousands protest in Falluja against arrests, call for release of those detained
Nine bodyguards for Iraq's finance minister have been arrested, Abdul Sattar al-Berqdar, a spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, told Iraqi state TV on Friday.
The announcement came a day after Finance Minister Rafei al-Essawi, who is Sunni, told the opposition Sharqiya TV that 150 members of his staff and their guards had been kidnapped.
But a spokesman for his office, who cited the sensitivity of the issue in asking not to be identified, said Friday that only the guards were detained, and that they were arrested, not abducted.
In addition, the Supreme Judicial Council spokesman told Iraqiya state television that the security commander of the finance minister's protection regiment was arrested Wednesday.
Al-Berqdar told the channel that the security chief had admitted during interrogation that he committed "terrorist" acts.
The finance minister said Thursday that he holds Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responsible for the safety of the people who were abducted when "a militia force" raided his house, headquarters and ministry in Baghdad.
The Shia-led Iraqi government says they were detained by police, not by any militia.
Members of al-Essawi's staff and guards were among those kidnapped Thursday from the ministry, the finance minister said. He also said that his computers and documents were searched at his house and headquarters.
He said his security commander had been arrested Wednesday for unknown reasons at a Baghdad checkpoint and that the compound had no security.
Al-Essawi, who has a large base of Sunni support, said he had tried without success to reach al-Maliki.
"My message to the prime minister: You are a man who does not respect partnership at all, a man who does not respect the law and the constitution, and I personally hold you fully responsible for the safety of the kidnapped people," al-Essawi said Thursday.
He called for the release of his staff and guards and for a no-confidence vote against al-Maliki in parliament.
Al-Maliki on Friday rejected al-Essawi's assertions, suggesting that some politicians chose to "fabricate political crises" when they disagreed with the action taken by authorities, judicial or not.
"Based on arrest warrants issued by the Iraqi judiciary, a police force has carried out its duty and arrested 10 people of the finance minister's bodyguards after checking their identities, and they are now in the custody of the Iraqi judiciary," al-Maliki said in a statement issued by his office.
"We were very surprised by linking the issue of detainees with the political differences and even by trying to drag the whole country toward sectarian strife," he said.
The leader said the Iraqi people had already paid a high price for sectarian conflict and could not return to it, and he criticized the finance minister for calling the Iraqi security forces "a militia force," saying many of them had sacrificed their lives to achieve stability and security in the country.
Earlier Friday, thousands of people in Falluja, a predominantly Sunni city west of the capital, protested the arrest of the bodyguards. The protesters also demanded the immediate release of those kidnapped.
"Stop this charade!" they chanted in a reference to what they said were al-Maliki's actions.
The incident highlights a growing distrust between Sunni and Shiite politicians in Iraq, as well as concerns about the independence of Iraq's judiciary.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is Sunni, addressed reporters on behalf of the Iraqiya List, which won the largest number of seats in the March 2010 national elections.
"The Iraqiya List demands either to ensure the integrity and independence of the judiciary system in Iraq or it will withdraw completely from the Iraqi parliament and from the political process in general," al-Mutlaq said.
The multi-sectarian Iraqiya List, headed by former Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, garnered most of the Sunni Arab vote.
Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 elections, leading to the emergence of a Shiite-led government. The move left the once-ruling minority disaffected, which contributed to years of bloody insurgency and sectarian warfare.
The incidents follow the troubles of Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who was sentenced to death in September, accused in the deaths of a lawyer and an army general.
Al-Hashimi, who is Sunni and now lives in Istanbul, denies the charges and says the accusations are politically motivated.