BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant Thursday for the country's leading Sunni Arab cleric, accusing him of colluding with insurgents, a potentially explosive charge that could exacerbate tensions between the country's warring sectarian groups and further divide a fragile national government.
The move against Harith Dhari, head of the Muslim Scholars Assn., came two days after an audacious daytime kidnapping in Baghdad ruptured the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, setting Sunni politicians against Shiites.
In an appearance on state-run TV late Thursday evening, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a Shiite, announced that Dhari was wanted on a charge of inciting violence. "The government's policy is that anyone who tries to spread division and strife among the Iraq people will be chased by our security agencies," Bolani said.
Dhari has been a vocal, sometimes sarcastic, critic of the government, questioning the legitimacy of the criminal trials of former President Saddam Hussein and ridiculing the government's reconciliation efforts.
"The political process that the security of Iraq is depending on is a failing process, so that is why the security is failing and deteriorating," Dhari said on Al Arabiya television last weekend.
The warrant against him is virtually certain to rekindle threats of a boycott of the government by Sunni politicians. Sunnis have warned that such a walkout would have dire consequences, further entrenching an already brutal civil war and pushing more ordinary Sunnis toward the insurgency. It would also be a lethal blow to a coalition government that U.S. policymakers had hoped would pacify the hostility among Iraq's sects and ethnic groups.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spent months persuading mainstream parties representing the once-dominant Sunni minority to join the Shiite-led government. But in recent months Shiite militiamen using the cover of the official security apparatus have waged a nightly subterranean war against Sunnis, whose bodies show up every morning in drainage ditches, bearing gunshot wounds, burn marks and other signs of torture.
On Thursday, some Sunnis sounded like they already had passed their breaking point with the government.
Issuing the warrant "represents the bankruptcy of the sectarian government following one scandal after the other," Muslim Scholars Assn. spokesman Mohammed Bashar Faidi told Al Jazeera television. "The decisions of this government are worthless because it only rules the Green Zone," the U.S.-fortified security area in Baghdad that is home to the Iraqi government and the American and British embassies.
Faidi charged Bolani with "supporting terrorism by covering for militias that are killing the Iraqi people," and he told another regional channel that Dhari was in Jordan when the arrest warrant was issued.
Though a ranking cleric, Dhari does not have the stature of Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But among Sunnis, he has emerged as a vocal representative of Sunni defiance and anger and has become a leader of the fractious community.
Dhari's group, an umbrella organization for Sunni clerics, has been vehemently anti-U.S. and is believed to have close links to elements of the insurgency.
Earlier in the week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, described Dhari as a hard-liner with "nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition."
Violence and crime on the streets of Baghdad on Thursday did not help matters. At least 17 people were killed by bombs and gunmen. In addition, gunmen dressed as police commandos kidnapped 15 people from a tea shop in a mixed neighborhood of the capital, authorities said.
A similar mass kidnapping this week of academics from a Sunni-led Higher Education Ministry office intensified a mounting political crisis. Witnesses said gunmen dressed in government-issued uniforms carted away as many as 150 people. Sunni politicians charge that as many as 80 are still missing, a claim denied by Maliki and the Interior Ministry, which said everyone had been released unharmed.
Maliki has promised to disarm and disband the Shiite militias wreaking havoc on the street. But Sunnis say the government has not done enough, particularly in pursuing leads provided by those who were released after this week's kidnapping of academics.
"The government hasn't moved a finger to investigate," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for Iraq's main Sunni political bloc, which is part of the ruling government coalition. "The government is either weak or in collusion with the kidnappers or has lost control of the militias."
Sunnis say the lack of concessions they've obtained for their followers has built up sentiment for pulling out of the government.
Sunnis have been frustrated in their attempts to reduce the influence of Shiite militias, win guarantees that Iraq won't be partitioned and reverse laws that discriminate against former members of Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party.