- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

BAGHDAD | Iraqi authorities ordered the midflight return of a plane carrying a Sunni lawmaker accused of directing a private terrorism cell, forcing him back to Baghdad on Wednesday hours before parliament lifted his immunity and cleared the way for his arrest.

Mohammed al-Dayni faces allegations he masterminded a string of attacks that include a 2007 suicide bombing inside the parliament building and mortar strikes on Baghdad’s Green Zone.

He left the airport before an arrest warrant was issued, and by nightfall was the target of a nationwide manhunt.

Mr. al-Dayni has strongly denied the charges, claiming they are part of a campaign by the Shi’ite-led government to silence critics. He has frequently spoken out against purported rights abuses of Sunni prisoners and suspected Iranian influence over the nation’s Shi’ite leaders.

The showdown over Mr. al-Dayni risks reopening Sunni-Shi’ite rifts after U.S.-backed efforts for political reconciliation. His supporters have called for a full-scale investigation of all parliament members suspected of having links to sectarian violence.

Wisem al-Zeidi, a top parliament aide, said majority of lawmakers at an emergency session voted to lift Mr. al-Dayni’s immunity from prosecution. He did not immediately give further details of the vote breakdown.

Mr. al-Dayni said he was traveling to Jordan to see family when authorities ordered the Iraqi Airways jet to return to Baghdad just as it was about to leave Iraqi airspace.

“I was banned from traveling. … I am nervous, but I’m not afraid,” he said by telephone after his plane landed back in Baghdad.

A number of Iraqi political figures facing charges of corruption or violence have fled to neighboring Jordan or Syria.

Videotaped interrogations of two former bodyguards - one of whom is Mr. al-Dayni’s nephew - were released last week, implicating him as the ringleader of a network that waged a nearly three-year campaign of violence.

Iraq’s government, meanwhile, welcomed reports of a U.S. combat troop withdrawal by August 2010.

“The Iraqi troops are ready to take responsibility. There is nothing to worry about and the withdrawal will be carried out in coordination between the two sides,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, one of the Iraqi prime minister’s top advisers.

President Obama was expected to order all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by August of next year. An announcement by Mr. Obama could come as early as this week, a senior White House official said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama’s announcement will speed up the timeline of a U.S.-Iraq security pact, which took effect Jan. 1, calling for American troops to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30 and completely pull out troops by the end of 2011.

But the withdrawal of troops under Mr. Obama’s plan would still keep U.S. troops in Iraq well after parliamentary elections this year, which military officials have said is one of the next big security tests. There are more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

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