Barzani meets Obama amid tension in Iraq

Barzani meets Obama amid tension in Iraq

Barzani meets Obama amid tension in Iraq

Tension between the KRG leader Barzani (L) and the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki rises over the status of the vice president. REUTERS photo

The Obama administration has pressed Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani to re-engage with Baghdad amid high tension over the status of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Al-Hashemi arrived in Saudi Arabia on April 4 and accused his country’s prime minister of waging a systematic campaign against Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera aired late April 4, al-Hashemi said the accusations that he ran a death squad “have a sectarian dimension,” noting that he is the “fifth Sunni figure to be targeted” by Iraq’s Shiite-led government. “More than 90 percent of the detainees in Iraq are Sunnis,” said al-Hashemi, who pledged to return to Iraq to carry out his vice presidential duties, despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demands that he face trial.

Al-Hashemi flew to Saudi Arabia from neighboring Qatar, where he had stayed for four days, the official Saudi news agency reported. He was greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah, according to a Saudi Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said al-Hashemi will stay temporarily in Saudi Arabia.

‘Historic relations with Kurdistan’

“I will return to Kurdistan, without a doubt. I will never abandon my country,” al-Hashemi said, adding that he would be ready to leave Kurdistan if he felt his presence there was a burden to its government. Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani recently blasted Kurdish leaders for ignoring the nationwide arrest warrant and letting al-Hashemi leave the country via the Arbil Airport. Al-Hashemi is wanted in Iraq on terror charges for allegedly running death squads against Shiite pilgrims, government officials and security forces.

Meanwhile, Barzani met with top U.S. officials including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “The United States is committed to our close and historic relationship with Kurdistan and the Kurdish people, in the context of our strategic partnership with a federal, democratic and unified Iraq,” the White House said in a statement. Obama and Biden also encouraged Barzani’s continued engagement in the Iraqi political process, under the auspices of Iraq’s constitution. Separately, Biden hosted Barzani and his delegation. The two leaders discussed a range of issues related to Iraq and the region and steps the U.S. would take to expand services offered at its consulate in Arbil. They also expressed support for continued high-level consultations between U.S. officials and representatives of the KRG.

Al-Hashemi sharply criticized Iraq’s prime minister, saying, “Corruption in the country is widespread,” and warning that the prime minister’s policies were threatening “the unity of Iraq.” Al-Hashemi alleged that al-Maliki’s government is providing “military assistance” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, arguing that his support for Syria’s leadership, which he has previously accused of funding terrorism, is motivated by sectarian considerations. “There is information about Iraqi militias fighting alongside the Syrian regime,” al-Hashemi told Al-Jazeera. There are also “unconfirmed reports that Iraq’s airspace is being used to help [Assad’s] regime,” he said, hinting at Iranian involvement.