BAGHDAD -- Shi'ite politicians demanded changes in Iraq's government yesterday, accusing a Sunni Arab party in the coalition of ties to terrorism after a bodyguard for its leader was arrested on suspicion of planning bomb attacks.
The dispute threatened a sectarian crisis within the national unity government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is struggling to contain spiraling Shi'ite-Sunni killings that the US ambassador said have now taken a larger toll of lives than Sunni insurgent attacks.
After the bodyguard's arrest, an unprecedented surprise curfew was imposed Saturday in Baghdad, barring movement of pedestrians and vehicles. The curfew was lifted early yesterday.
At least 23 people were killed in violence yesterday, and 21 bodies were found in Baghdad or to the south, many of them bound and tortured. In the evening, gunmen burst into a frozen food factory in Baghdad, kidnapping 24 workers and wounding two others. The attack was similar to past attacks in which militants have picked out members of the opposing sect from among the captives and killed them.
The US military also reported yesterday that two American soldiers were killed the day before in fighting in western Anbar Province, bringing to at least 70 the number of US service members killed in September, the second-highest monthly toll this year after April, when 76 died.
Iraqi troops backed by American military advisers arrested a suspected Shi'ite militiaman believed to have carried out kidnappings and killings.
A gun battle broke out at the suspect's house in Baghdad's Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City, leaving a woman and a girl dead, Iraqi police said.
Afterward, angry men at the scene held up a color photo of a smiling, winking Jesus giving a thumbs-up sign that they said was left by troops at the raided house, an allegation denied by US and Iraqi officials.
The photo, known as the ``Buddy Christ," is from the movie ``Dogma," a 1999 religious satire in which ``Buddy Christ" is part of a church campaign to improve Jesus' image.
US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said the photo was a ``rather ridiculous attempt" to discredit the raid. It was unclear how it ended up at the site.
The potential government crisis erupted after US troops arrested a bodyguard of Sunni politician Adnan Dulaimi on Friday, saying the man was suspected of leading an Al Qaeda-linked cell that was ``in the final stages" of carrying out bombings in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, the center of government and home to the US and British embassies.
Dulaimi heads the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab party, which has 44 seats in the 275-member parliament and positions in Maliki's government, including a supporter in the Defense Minister post.
The government also includes Shi'ite parties linked to militias accused of killing Sunnis, and the arrest threatened to wreck Maliki's attempts to forge a reconciliation between the sects that could rein in the militias as well as Sunni insurgent violence.
``We are faced with two choices, either militias or the nation. We will not allow the dignity of the nation to be violated," the Shi'ite prime minister said yesterday in an interview with Al-Hurra TV, which is funded and overseen by the State Department.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, sought to contain the political fallout, underlining in a joint statement that ``the arrested individual had no ties to al-Dulaimi's family, nor is al-Dulaimi connected in any way to the suspect activities of the individual."
But Baha el-Deen al-Araji, a lawmaker from the party of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, accused Sunni politicians of having ``direct and indirect links to Saddamists, Takfiris [Sunni radicals], and terrorists."
He demanded a ``significant Cabinet reshuffle" to change ``ministries of security and public services dossiers."
``All our Sunni brothers have terrorist groups; this is destructive to the reconciliation process," another Sadrist lawmaker, Nasser al-Saadi, told the Associated Press. ``We must stand up to them."
He said that if Dulaimi is shown to have links to Al Qaeda, ``he should be treated as a terrorist." The lawmakers said parliament would discuss the arrest in a session today.
Dulaimi denied any connection to militants and said those trying to defame the Accordance Front should ``be silent, because any factor that leads to [a blow-up in] this case would affect the entire national unity process."