BAGHDAD // Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki called on Kurdish authorities to hand over the Sunni vice president to face charges his office had run death squads that targeted government officials.
It’s a demand likely to further heighten sectarian tensions.
The latest move in the dispute between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and Sunni rivals erupted on the first anniversary of the formation of the government of national unity and days after the last US troops were withdrawn from Iraq.
Mr Al Maliki had sought Tariq Al Hashemi’s arrest, prompting the Sunni leader to travel to Kurdistan. “We ask our brothers in the Kurdistan region to take responsibility and hand the wanted person over to the judiciary. His running to another state would create problems,” Mr Al Maliki said during a news conference.
“We will be sure to provide a fair trial for Tariq Al Hashemi. I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood.”
Officials issued the warrant for Mr Al Hashemi’s arrest on Monday, after earlier banning him from travelling overseas. The last US troops withdrew from Iraq on Sunday, nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
At least 13 of the vice president’s bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, security officials have said, although it was unclear how many remain in custody. The White House on Tuesday said it was “obviously concerned” about the arrest warrant issued for Mr Al Hashemi and urged the probe be conducted according to rule of law.
Mr Al Hashemi’s office said only three of the bodyguards were arrested, and has complained of “intentional harassment” in the form of blockade of his home by security forces for several weeks, as well as other incidents.
Mr Al Hashemi has denied the charges he says were fabricated by Mr Al Maliki’s government, and said he is willing to face judges in the northern Kurdish enclave. The three provinces that make up the Kurdish region are part of Iraq, but the Kurds have their own security forces and Iraqi army and national police do not operate there.
“I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood,” Mr Al Hashemi told reporters in Erbil on Tuesday. “I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial.”
Mr Al Maliki also rejected Mr Al Hashemi’s calls for Arab League representatives to observe the investigation and any questioning, telling reporters, “We gave the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a fair trial, and we will ensure that a fair trial will also be given to Hashemi,” referring to the now-executed Hussien.
Mr Al Hashemi added that apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were “false” and “politicised”.
The crisis risks unravelling a fragile year-old power-sharing deal among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs that have struggled to overcome tensions since sectarian slaughter in the years after Saddam’s fall in 2003.
Shiite leaders say the case involves law enforcement against individuals and does not target a community, but the Sunni minority fears that Mr Al Maliki is increasing his hold on the government and marginalising Sunnis.
Many Sunnis feel the Shiite-led government is overly aligned with neighbouring Iran and determined to keep Sunnis, who once dominated the country under Hussein, from ever regaining positions of power.
In a system devised under US occupation to divide power, Iraq has a Shiite prime minister with Sunni and Kurd deputies, a Kurdish president with Shiite and Sunni vice presidents, and a Sunni parliament speaker with Shiite and Kurd deputies.
Kurdistan, locked in a struggle over oil and territory with Mr Al Maliki, may use the crisis as leverage in talks with Baghdad over disputed Kurdistan contracts it has signed with US oil giant Exxon Mobil, which Mr Al Maliki’s central government says are illegal.
“Maliki still has a chance of keeping the government together - the Kurds will be critical to this,” Gala Riani at IHS Global Insight told the Reutersy news agency. “They might use this opportunity to press Maliki for the resolution of long-standing disputes.”
Mr Al Maliki has also asked parliament to fire the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh Al Mutlaq. Mr Al Hashemi and Mr Al Mutlaq are the country’s most senior Sunni politicians.
Mr Al Maliki also threatened yesterday to replace ministers belonging to the Iraqiyya bloc if they continued to boycott the national unity cabinet.
“Ministers have no right to suspend their membership in the government because they will be considered resigned,” he said. “In the next cabinet meeting, if they do not come back, we will appoint replacements.”
Iraqiyya, which controls nine ministerial posts and 82 seats in the 325-member legislature, has not pulled out of the government but has boycotted parliament and cabinet.
* Compiled from reports by Reuters and Agence France-Presse