Iraqi security forces arrested a prominent Sunni Muslim lawmaker and supporter of anti-government protests in a raid on his home in the western province of Anbar, sparking clashes in which at least five people were killed, police sources said.
The violent arrest of Ahmed al-Alwani is likely to inflame tensions in Sunni-dominated Anbar, where protesters have been demonstrating against what they see as marginalisation of their sect by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.
Alwani belongs to the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc and has been a strong critic of Maliki and an influential figure in the protest movement.
Police sources said a two-hour firefight broke out on Saturday when bodyguards and members of Alwani’s tribe resisted police and army forces who went to arrest Alwani on charges of “terrorism” from his house in the centre of the city of Ramadi.
They said those killed in the fighting included three of Alwani’s bodyguards, his sister and his brother.
“Army troops with police special forces were trying to arrest Alwani from his house, but fierce fighting erupted. Five bodies, including one woman, were taken to Falluja hospital,” one police source said.
No members of Alwani’s family could immediately be reached to give their version of events. Parliament speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, called the operation a “blatant violation” of Iraq’s constitution and a “dangerous precedent.”
Lieutenant-General Ali Ghaidan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, told state television that security forces had also tried to arrest Alwani’s brother Ali, whom he accused of involvement in attacks that killed Iraqi soldiers in Anbar.
Ali was killed in the fighting, as well as one Iraqi soldier, Ghaidan said.
“We treated Ahmed al-Alwani well. We told him that we had a warrant for his arrest, and arrested him,” he said, adding that two of Alwani’s bodyguards were wounded.
Violence in Iraq is at its worst levels since 2006-7, when tens of thousands of people were killed in fighting between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Bombings, shootings and suicide attacks, many staged by al Qaeda militants, are a near-daily occurrence.
Saturday’s clashes may undermine Maliki’s efforts to put an end to the protests in Anbar ahead of April elections.
In a statement on state television on Friday, Maliki said it would be the “last Friday” the protests and sit-ins would be allowed to continue.
Many Sunnis in the region are likely to see the incident as another example of what they portray as a crackdown against minority Sunni leaders.
In September last year, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians, was sentenced to death in absentia for murders committed by sectarian death squads. Hashemi, who denies the charges, fled to Turkey.
Finance Minister Rafie al-Essawi’s bodyguards were arrested in December, sparking the Sunni protests.
A raid on a protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in April sparked fighting that killed over 40 people. Hardline al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants have since stepped up attacks against Iraq’s government and anyone seen as supporting it.
One such attack in Anbar last week killed at least 18 Iraqi soldiers, including a military commander who oversaw the crackdown.