Protesters in response to arrests ... Iraq's Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi's bodyguards have been detained for terrorist activity. Photo: Reuters
TEN bodyguards of Iraq's Sunni Finance Minister, Rafia al-Issawi, have been arrested in a terrorism-related sweep, the first official confirmation in a case that is inflaming the country's simmering political and sectarian tensions.
Protests broke out in response to the detentions in at least two cities in Sunni-dominated western Anbar province, and the US said in unusually strong terms it was pressing Iraq's Shiite-led government to uphold its commitment to the law.
In the year since the last US troops left Iraq, the country had been racked by sectarian violence and political stalemate.
Iraq's Sunni Vice-President was on the run after being convicted in absentia and sentenced to death on terrorism charges, and bloody attacks by Sunni extremists against Shiites still took place frequently.
Critics of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused him of unfairly sidelining Sunni political rivals while seeking to consolidate power in the hands of Iraq's majority Shiites.
Mr Maliki's government said was committed to the rule of law and did not follow a sectarian agenda.
Late on Thursday, Mr Issawi accused an unspecified ''militia force'' of ''kidnapping'' members of his staff and said he held Mr Maliki personally responsible for their safety.
He suggested the Prime Minister had knowledge of the moves against his employees and urged the parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against him.
A Supreme Judicial Council spokesman, Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, said the chief of Mr Issawi's protection force was arrested on Wednesday on the strength of confessions obtained by the authorities.
The chief had confessed he took part in terrorist attacks, and nine other bodyguards were held while the investigation proceeded, Mr Bayrkdar said.
The Interior Ministry posted the names and arrest warrants of the suspects on its official website, including the security chief, identified as Colonel Mahmoud al-Issawi.
US officials had been engaged with Iraqi political leaders since hearing about the detentions and urged the government to uphold the rule of law.
''Any actions from any party that subverts the rule of law or provokes ethnic or sectarian tension risks undermining the significant progress Iraq has made towards peace and stability,'' a US embassy official said.
The arrests came at a sensitive time for Iraq. The President, Jalal Talabani, was flown to Germany on Thursday for medical treatment after what had been described as a serious stroke.