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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sunni leaders in Iraq accused Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of a crackdown on Friday after troops detained a Sunni minister's bodyguards, setting off protests in one province and threatening to reignite a political crisis.
The incident came hours after President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has mediated among Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions, left for Germany after suffering a stroke that may end his steadying influence over politics.
Talabani's absence and political tension has renewed pressure on Iraq's fragile power-sharing government, which is split among sects and ethnic Kurds and has stumbled from crisis to crisis since U.S. soldiers withdrew in December 2011.
Maliki has often managed to play his rivals off against one another and strengthen his alliances in the complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar after prayers, blocking a highway in Falluja to demand Maliki's resignation and waving banners reading: "Resistance is still in our veins".
Sunni leaders warned they might withdraw from government and called for a vote of no confidence in Maliki, whom they accuse of abusing his power to sideline election rivals.
"My message to the prime minister is that you are a man who does not believe in partnership and does not respect the law and the constitution," Finance Minister Rafaie Esawi said.
Politicians and the authorities gave conflicting accounts of the incident, but it evoked an episode a year ago when Iraq moved to arrest Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, accusing him of running death squads just as U.S. troops left.
Maliki, who forged his political career in exile and resistance to Saddam Hussein, called for calm, urging opponents not to color a judicial decision with politics.
"Let Sunni and Shi'ite know that the execution of judicial orders against some accused does not mean the targeting of a certain sect," Maliki said. "We call on all to stop any statement or voice compromising the unity of the country."
Esawi said more than 100 bodyguards and staff had been snatched illegally, and blamed Maliki. The prime minister's office said only 10 bodyguards had been arrested and that the warrants had been issued under counter-terrorism laws.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said: "Any actions from any party that subverts the rule of law or provokes ethnic or sectarian tension risks undermining the significant progress Iraq has made."
A year ago, the Hashemi case plunged Iraq's delicate power-sharing deal into turmoil, with Sunnis boycotting parliament and cabinet in protest at what they said was a political witch-hunt against Sunni opponents.
Hashemi accused the government of torturing his bodyguards and fled only to be sentenced to death in absentia.
Violence in Iraq is down sharply from the days of intercommunal slaughter that erupted soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam. But sectarianism still runs deep in Iraqi politics.
With the political system and much lawmaking paralyzed by infighting among the factions, Maliki has said he may try to form a majority government with some Sunni leaders and end the power-sharing deal.
"You cannot outright dismiss electioneering," said Ramzy Mardini at the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. "If Maliki can't co-opt Sunnis to form a majority governing coalition, he's going to make sure the Shi'ites are consolidated behind him."
Talabani, 79, a former militant who was admitted to hospital on Monday, had often mediated among Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as in the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region.
He was in a stable condition in a Berlin hospital and was responding well to treatment, his office said on Friday.
Foes of Maliki, an ally of Iran, tried earlier this year to organize a vote of no confidence in him. It failed when Talabani did not back it and due to splits among Maliki's rivals.
The Kurdish leader had also helped ease tensions between Maliki and the northern Kurdistan region, after both sent troops from their respective armies to face off along territories dotted with oilfields where both claim rights.
While most politicians are publicly wishing Talabani a speedy recovery, behind the scenes, some senior Sunni political leaders have suggested they may present their own candidate for the presidency in a challenge to the Kurds.
Under the constitution, parliament elects a new president and a vice president takes over in the interim. The power-sharing deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd while two vice presidential posts are shared by a Sunni and a Shi'ite.
Among Kurds, former Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Salih is favored as a leader with ties across Iraq's sectarian divide. But there could also be a struggle within Iraqi Kurdistan, where Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party shares power with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Suadad al-Salhy; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Janet Lawrence