Iraqi authorities said Friday that they have arrested 10 bodyguards of the country’s Sunni finance minister in a terrorism-related sweep, the first official confirmation in a case that is inflaming the nation’s simmering political and sectarian tensions.

Protests broke out in response to the detentions in at least two cities in the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar, and the United States said in unusually strong terms that it is pressing Iraq’s Shiite-led government to uphold its commitment to the law.

Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuse him of unfairly sidelining Sunni political rivals while seeking to consolidate power in the hands of Iraq’s majority Shiites. Maliki’s government says it is committed to the rule of law and does not follow a sectarian agenda.

Late Thursday, Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi accused an unspecified “militia force” of “kidnapping” members of his staff and said at a news conference that he held Maliki responsible for their safety. Issawi suggested the prime minister knew of the move and urged the parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against him.

Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said Friday that the chief of Issawi’s protection force was arrested Wednesday on the strength of confessions obtained by the authorities. The chief had confessed that he took part in terrorist attacks, Bayrkdar said, and nine other bodyguards were held while the investigation proceeds.

U.S. officials have been engaged with Iraqi political leaders since hearing about the detentions, a U.S. Embassy official said, warning that “any actions from any party” that subvert the rule of law or provoke ethnic or sectarian tension risk undermining progress toward stability.

On Friday, Maliki defended the arrests as legal and based on judicial warrants. He accused Issawi of fabricating a political crisis for personal gain and criticized him for referring to security forces as militias.

“Sunnis, Shiites and all the people must know that carrying out arrest warrants against suspects doesn’t mean targeting a specific sect,” Maliki said in a statement.

Issawi belongs to the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which has long battled Maliki over power-sharing. Tensions have heightened since an arrest warrant was issued a year ago for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Issawi ally, on charges he says are politically motivated.

Hashimi voiced solidarity with Issawi in a statement Friday, saying of Maliki: “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.”

— Associated Press