Iraqi security forces stepped up their make or break battle with insurgents yesterday, announcing the arrest of a gang suspected of plotting attacks on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's family.
Controversy also erupted in Baghdad where health ministry officials accused US and Iraqi troops of storming their offices, arresting seven bodyguards and taking Iraqi dinars worth US$34,000.
Iraqi and US officials were unable to immediately confirm the raid had taken place, but a small anti-American demonstration erupted outside the ministry building and health officials ordered a one-day protest strike.
Meanwhile, Baghdad's vicious sectarian war continued, with more victims of the city's death squads washing up in the Tigris River.
"An army patrol picked up 12 corpses, most of them in civilian clothes. They had been shot in the head except one, who was beheaded. All of them had been tortured," said a statement from the ministry of defense.
Maliki's government announced the arrest a 16-strong gang of alleged insurgents accused of planting car bombs in the capital and plotting to kidnap or kill the prime minister's relatives.
A statement from Maliki's office said the group's members had been captured over the previous 24 hours in Maliki's hometown of Hindiyah, south of Baghdad.
"The were planning to attack, kidnap or assassinate close relatives of prime minister Maliki," the statement said.
"They confessed to crimes such as murder, rape and an attack on a police station in Mahmudiyah which killed six officers," the statement said.
"One member of this gang confessed to blowing up 10 car bombs in Baghdad," the statement said, adding that the suspects' case files would be transferred to Karbala for prosecution.
Maliki, a 56-year-old Shiite leader, is the head of Iraq's coalition unity government.
Iraqi forces also detained six suspects in the restive mainly Sunni city of Ramadi on Saturday, after a day of intense fighting between well-organized insurgent gangs and US troops left 24 attackers dead, the statement said.
Nine "suspected terrorists" were picked up in Mosul and two in Sammara, one of them a Sudanese national, the statement said.
In Baghdad, health ministry official Hakim al-Zamli said US and Iraqi troops arrived at around 2am and had arrested seven of the minister's bodyguards.
Iraq's ministries are controlled by rival factions within the coalition government, and ministers' bodyguards have in the past been accused of acting as private militias in the brutal world of Baghdad politics.
The health ministry is headed by a Shiite minister, Ali al-Shamari, who is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance party and is regarded as close to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Dozens of health ministry officials mounted a protest outside the ministry building yesterday, waving banners with anti-US slogans.
Zamli said health workers had gone on strike in protest at the raid, but that emergency health services would be maintained.
"Our demands are the release of the detainees, a promise not to raid the ministry, compensation for the damages and an official apology," he said.