BAGHDAD // Iraq's Sunni vice president denied charges he ran a hit squad that killed government officials during the nation's wave of sectarian bloodletting, accusing the Shiite-led government yesterday of waging a campaign of persecution.
Acting just a day after US forces completed their withdrawal, the government issued an arrest warrant on Monday for Tariq Al Hashemi, Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni official. The step risks tearing at the same sectarian fault lines that pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war just a few years ago - a prospect that is all the more dire with no US forces on the ground.
Responding to the accusations, Mr Al Hashemi told reporters yesterday he had not committed any "sin" against Iraq and described the charges as "fabricated". He accused the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, of being behind a plot to smear him and declared that efforts at national reconciliation had been blown apart.
"I'm shocked by all these things," Mr Al Hashemi said in Irbil. "I swear to God that Al Hashemi didn't commit any sin or do anything wrong against any Iraqi either today or tomorrow and this is my pledge to God."
He said the arrest warrant was a campaign to "embarrass" him. He blamed Mr Al Maliki, although he did not say specifically what he believed the Shiite premier had done. "Al Maliki is behind the whole issue. The country is in the hands of Al Maliki. All the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So yes, I blame Al Maliki."
The Iraqi prime minister effectively runs the interior ministry, where the charges originated.
Iraqi officials on Monday accused Mr Al Hashemi of running a hit squad that assassinated government and security officials, and state-run television aired what it called confessions by men said to be working as bodyguards for Mr Al Hashemi.
Mr Al Hashemi left Baghdad on Sunday for Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Yesterday, he thanked Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, for his support and said Mr Talabani promised he would be responsible for his security.
Mr Al Maliki and other leaders have called for talks to resolve the political crisis, but the premier's spokesman said he would not accept any mediation over the charges against Mr Al Hashemi.
"The prime minister will not compromise the blood of Iraqis, no matter what the price," Ali Mussawi said. "The justice system should carry out its role. No one should block the work of justice, and we must allow it to complete all stages of the investigation in Al Hashemi's case."
Mr Al Maliki has also called for the deputy prime minister, Saleh Al Mutlak, a Sunni and a member of the secular Iraqiyya bloc, to be sacked after he said the premier was "worse than Saddam Hussein". Lawmakers are due to consider the request to fire Mr Al Mutlak on January 3.