The Shiite-led Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for the top leader of the country's Sunni minority -- a move certain to inflame already raging sectarian violence in Iraq.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced on Thursday on state television that Harith al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people.
Al-Dhari, head of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, is an extreme hardliner who recently mocked a government offer of reconciliation in return for abandoning the insurgency. But the move against him threatens to drive many moderate Sunnis out of the political system.
Already, moderate Sunnis have been threatening for weeks to leave the government and take up arms. If that happens, it would likely lead to a full-fledged civil war and make it much harder for US troops to withdraw from Iraq.
The warrant was issued on a day when at least 49 Iraqis died violently and the US military announced the deaths of four more US soldiers. Sunnis and Shiites could not agree on whether all hostages had been released from a mass abduction in Baghdad two days earlier, and one man said he'd been beaten by the kidnappers.
In southern Iraq, a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked Thursday, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said preliminary reports suggested there could be as many as 14 people captured and that the convoy included about 19 vehicles. ABC News reported that four of those captured were believed to be Americans. Nasiriyah is the capital of Dhi Qar province, where Italy formally handed over security responsibility to Iraqi forces in late September.
Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni association, condemned the warrant for al-Dhari's arrest.
"This government should resign before the Iraqi people force it to resign," al-Faidi told al-Jazeera television from Jordan. "The association calls on its people to be calm."
Al-Faidi accused the interior minister "of supporting terrorism by covering for [Shiite] militias that are killing the Iraqi people."
Earlier this year, the Sunni association blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing of a nephew and cousin of al-Dhari. Their bodies were found in a bullet-riddled vehicle in Baghdad.
Al-Dhari regularly travels between Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, as well as Syria, Jordan and Egypt. He was believed to be in Jordan when the arrest warrant was issued on Thursday night.
Al-Dhari is an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.