BAGHDAD (AP) _ Iraqi commandos raided the home of a Sunni Cabinet member Tuesday after a warrant was issued for his arrest, outraging Sunni politicians and jeopardizing U.S.-backed reconciliation efforts within the Shiite-led government.
The move against Culture Minister Asad Kamal al-Hashimi came after he was identified by two suspected militants as the mastermind of a Feb. 8, 2005, ambush against secular politician Mithal al-Alusi, an Iraqi government spokesman said. Al-Alusi escaped unharmed but two of his sons were killed.
``The two who planned and carried out the killings of Mithal al-Alusi's two sons confessed that they took orders from him,'' Ali al-Dabbagh said. The spokesman said al-Hashimi was a mosque imam at the time.
Al-Hashimi was not at home when the security forces staged the pre-dawn raid and detained some 40 of his guards. Muhanad al-Essawi, a spokesman for the main Sunni parliamentary bloc, said the minister was being kept in an undisclosed safe place in Baghdad and that Sunni politicians were asking the government to close the case.
Al-Hashimi is the first serving Cabinet minister to face arrest. The deputy health minister was arrested in February for alleged ties to Shiite militiamen.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has promised not to let political or sectarian considerations stop him from cracking down on violence. But the move threatened to set back efforts to bring the disaffected Sunni minority into the political process, a step the U.S. says is key to stem support for the insurgency and enable American troops to go home.
Al-Hashimi's party, the Congress of the People of Iraq, condemned the arrest warrant and warned the government to avoid ``playing with fire'' by ``fabricating lies to exclude Sunni politicians and officials from the Iraqi arena.''
A government official said the warrant was issued after culture minister failed to respond to a summons by judicial authorities two days ago.
The official said that Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie, a Sunni, asked al-Maliki about the raid during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday but the prime minister told him it was a legal matter. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.
Al-Alusi, the politician whose sons were killed, gained a measure of notoriety in 2004 when Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress fired him for visiting Israel to attend an anti-terrorism conference. He now is a member of parliament with his own party.
In a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera, al-Hashimi accused the government of pursuing him as part of a campaign to sideline Sunni politicians.
``When they want to get rid of anybody, the easiest way for them to do that is to charge him with terrorist activities,'' al-Hashimi said. ``They have ready-made charges and they use them against us so that they can chase us out of the country.''
The Iraqi Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni bloc in the legislature, said the warrant was based on statements made under torture.
``We are fed up and there is no room for patience and we wish that this mistake would be fixed and not repeated,'' the Front said. The statement added that al-Maliki had promised the minister would not be arrested, although officials in the prime minister's office denied the claim.
The Sunni community, which was dominant under Saddam Hussein, has been struggling for a greater role in government. At the same time, hardline Sunni insurgent groups have been targeting Sunnis who want to join the political process.
A Sunni sheik, Hamid Abdul Farhan al-Shujairi, was gunned down Tuesday in a mainly Sunni area of Baghdad, police said. A member of his tribe, Akram al-Shujairi, said the sheik had attended a conference several weeks ago on supporting the government and fighting al-Qaida.
The attack occurred one day after a suicide bomber slipped into the busy Mansour Hotel in Baghdad and blew himself up, killing as many as six tribal leaders who oppose al-Qaida.
U.S. Marine Maj. Jeff Pool, a military spokesman in western Iraq, said Sunni sheiks from Anbar province were meeting with Shiite sheiks at the Mansour to talk about reconciliation.
An al-Qaida front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility in a statement posted Tuesday on an Islamist Web site.
Sectarian violence persisted Tuesday, with at least 41 Iraqis killed or found dead nationwide, including a top Baghdad University official who was shot to death while being driven home from work in the capital and a university student who was killed after final exams in the northern city of Mosul.
U.S. troops called in help from their British allies as a Royal Air Force plane bombed a building south of Baghdad, killing six insurgents, the U.S. command said.
A U.S. statement said the GR-4 Tornado jet was summoned after insurgents fled into a building following an attack on an Iraqi police station and checkpoint in Salman Pak. Four Iraqi vehicles were destroyed.
After the insurgents took shelter in the building, the British jet destroyed the target with a 2,000-pound bomb, the statement added. Two U.S. OH-58D helicopters also joined the fight, engaging about 30 insurgents with rocket and machine gun fire, the U.S. said.