BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces detained the deputy health minister during a raid on the Health Ministry building in central Baghdad on Thursday, a ministry spokesman and witnesses said.
Hakim Zamili, the deputy minister, is a senior member of the political group loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The raid comes a day after the U.S. military said a U.S.-Iraqi security plan to stabilize Baghdad was under way.
It was unclear why Zamili was detained, the first time a senior member of Sadr’s movement in the government has been picked up. The U.S. military said it was checking the reports.
Sadr is a key political ally of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki.
“At around 9 a.m. today, American forces accompanied by Iraqi forces broke into the ministry, forced the guards to lie on the floor and took Zamili,” said Qassem Allawi, the ministry spokesman.
“All the employees were terrified because they were breaking doors and smashing things. Some of the employees ran to the streets.”
Sadr’s political movement accused Washington of trying to provoke a confrontation and urged the government to take action to immediately free the official.
“They are trying to drag the Sadrist movement to a confrontation. How else would arresting a deputy health minister without an arrest warrant be read,” Abdel Mahdi al-Matiri, an official in Sadr’s movement, told Reuters.
“Zamili is in the government. Maliki should not just keep watching. Maybe tomorrow they will arrest him too.”
The U.S. military has stepped up operations against some Sadr supporters and the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to Sadr and which U.S. military commanders accuse of widespread sectarian killings.
Dealing with the Mehdi Army is likely to be a critical issue for U.S. forces and Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist, during a long- awaited crackdown in Baghdad to try to curb sectarian violence that is pushing Iraq toward all-out civil war.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have seized or killed hundreds of followers of Sadr in recent weeks. In January, the U.S. military arrested Sadr’s spokesman in Baghdad, Sheikh Abdul Hadi al- Darraji.
Shi’ite militias along with Sunni insurgent groups have been blamed for thousands of killings in the past year.