WASHINGTON — Iraqi security forces raided the office and home of a leading Sunni official in Baghdad on Thursday, prompting fears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is cracking down on political opponents.
The official, Rafie al-Issawi, Iraq’s finance minister and a prominent member of the Iraqiya political coalition, said at a press conference in Baghdad that about 150 of his guards and staff members had been arrested.
Issawi described the move as a “preelection blow” intended to weaken Maliki’s rivals before the provincial elections scheduled for the spring.
The move has alarmed US officials, who noted that Issawi was regarded as a moderate Sunni figure and that purging him from the government — or perhaps even moving to arrest him, as Issawi’s supporters fear — would risk further inflaming sectarian tensions.
“We have been actively engaged with Iraqi political leaders on this matter,” a senior State Department official said. ‘‘We have urged the Iraqi government to uphold their commitments to due process and the rule of law as enshrined in their Constitution.’’
Ambassador Robert S. Beecroft, the US envoy in Baghdad, has contacted senior Iraqi officials to try to defuse the situation, US officials said.
Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, who has been incapacitated by a stroke, was flown to Germany on Thursday for medical care. Talabani, a Kurd, played a role in tamping down tensions during a political crisis in December 2011 that is eerily similar to the one that is unfolding in Baghdad.
The raid is just the latest in a series of episodes that have raised questions about how much influence the United States has in Iraq after the withdrawal of US forces in 2011.
In recent months, the Maliki government has ignored the Obama administration’s request that Iraq inspect Iranian flights that are believed to be delivering weapons to President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria through Iraqi airspace. Maliki also rebuffed a White House appeal that Iraq continue to detain a Hezbollah operative from Lebanon who had been linked to the death of US troops.
Maliki has asserted that he did not orchestrate the actions taken against al-Issawi, suggesting that they were the result of an investigation undertaken by the Iraqi judiciary. But that explanation is widely discounted by Iraq experts, who saw the move as part of Maliki’s efforts to expand his authority and fracture the Iraqiya political bloc.
Issawi, who provided a dramatic account of the arrests, said that he had sought to call Maliki about the crisis. But the prime minister, he said, had not responded. After the raid, Issawi took refuge in the residence of Osama al-Nujaifi, the Parliament speaker, one of his supporters said. “Today, militia forces raided the Ministry of Finance, my office and home in an illegal action,” Issawi said. “They arrested all the employees and guards.”
“Is this the behavior of a government or the work of gangs?” added Issawi, who urged the Parliament to undertake a vote of no confidence in Maliki.
Maliki’s distrust of Issawi has a long history. During the Iraq war, Issawi worked as a doctor in Falluja, an enclave of Sunni insurgents. General Ray Odierno, while serving as the US commander in Iraq, sought to reassure Maliki that the United States had looked into allegations that Issawi was cooperating with insurgents and found them to be baseless.