Iraq tension further mounts as VP denies charges

Iraq tension further mounts as VP denies charges

Iraq tension further mounts as VP denies charges

An Iraqi man in Baghdad reads a local newspaper, featuring a front page picture of Vice-President al-Hashemi with the word ‘wanted.’ Hashemi said he was ready to face trial on terror charges on condition that the case be heard in northern Iraq. AFP photo

Iraq’s Sunni vice president denied terror charges against him and vowed to defend himself in a defiant news conference yesterday as political leaders called for urgent talks to resolve a worsening crisis.

An arrest warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on Dec. 19 has hiked tensions between Sunnis and Shiites at a particularly fragile time for the nation and spurs his Iraqiya bloc to say it would boycott cabinet meetings. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for the sacking of one of his deputies, Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni who branded the Shiite-led government a “dictatorship” and al-Maliki as “worse than Saddam Hussein.”

Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said Iraq’s political process faced “crucial days,” while Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) head Masoud Barzani warned “the situation is headed towards deep crisis” and cautioned “the ruling partnership has become threatened.”

Al-Hashemi left Baghdad on Dec. 18 for northern Iraq, which is ruled by the KRG, presumably hoping the Kurdish authorities would not turn him in. He thanked Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani for his support and said Talabani promised he would be responsible for his security, the Associated Press reported. Al-Hashemi also sought to play down speculation he would flee the country. He said that while he might leave for a short period of time, he would always return to Iraq.

‘Ready to face trial in Kurdistan’

The White House also voiced concern over the developments as U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey met Iraqi leaders, although al-Maliki’s office ruled out any mediation over the charges against al-Hashemi. “I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood,” al-Hashemi told a news conference in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil. “I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial.” He called for representatives of the Arab League to take part in the investigation and any questioning and said apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were “false” and “politicized.”

Al-Hashemi also questioned upbeat statements about the state of Iraq from Barack Obama, telling reporters: “I am surprised by the statements of the U.S. president when he said Iraq had become democratic and had an independent judicial system.” The arrest warrant comes after he was barred from travelling overseas.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath party regime, the Sunni minority has constantly complained of attempts by the Shiite majority to sideline them.

At first the Sunnis waged an insurgency against the Americans then became U.S. allies against al-Qaeda, but relations with the Shiite-led national government are still frosty. Al-Hashemi is Sunni and Iraqiya is overwhelmingly Sunni, while al-Maliki and his government are Shiite. Iraqiya has increasingly complained about what they describe as al-Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies and reluctance to share power.

Compiled from AFP and AP stories by the Daily News staff.