Iraqi PM’s ultimatum risks deepening feud

Iraqi PM’s ultimatum risks deepening feud

Iraqi PM’s ultimatum risks deepening feud

Residents demand Iraq’s Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi to be put on trial during a demonstration in central Baquba, Iraq. REUTERS photo

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister has threatened Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq over the fugitive Sunni vice president, telling them to hand over the politician on terror charges in a move that risks fueling ethnic tensions in the war-torn country.

Failing to hand over the wanted vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, or letting him flee or escape “will lead to problems,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday.

Al-Hashemi fled to northern Iraq to escape an arrest warrant on charges that he ran hit squads targeting government officials. The charges, leveled on Dec. 19 – a day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq – have opened up a new round of Shiite-Sunni tensions that pushed the country to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.

“I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood,” al-Maliki said, adding that Iraq was a unified county and that the Kurdish authorities should hand over al-Hashemi to the Iraqi justice system.

Al-Maliki also rejected 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 al-Hashemi,” referring to the now-executed Saddam.
Washington has urged calm to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

Al-Maliki, meanwhile, also threatened to replace nine Cabinet ministers belonging to the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc if they did not end a Cabinet boycott. Al-Maliki has also called for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni Arab like al-Hashemi and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, to be sacked after al-Mutlak said the premier was “worse than Saddam Hussein.”

“If we don’t succeed [in reaching] an agreement, we will move toward forming a majority government” as opposed to the current national unity Cabinet, al-Maliki said.

Iraqiya, which has not pulled out of the government, holds 82 of the 325 seats in Parliament and controls nine ministerial posts but had earlier said it was suspending its participation in the legislature. The bloc, which garnered most of its support from the Sunni minority and emerged with the most seats in the March 2010 elections, was out-maneuvered for the premiership by al-Maliki who finished second in the polls.

Al-Maliki’s remarks came after he held a telephone call with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who urged him to work with other parties to resolve the worsening crisis threatening Iraq’s fragile political truce. Biden spoke with al-Maliki and the parliamentary speaker and “stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together,” the White House said.

Al-Hashemi, meanwhile, held a news conference in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil and denied the charges against him, vowing to face them in court. “I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood,” he told reporters Dec. 20. “I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial.”

He also said apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were “false” and “politicized.” His office has complained of “intentional harassment.”

Security officials said they had detained at least 13 of the vice president’s bodyguards in recent weeks, but al-Hashemi’s office said only three have been arrested.

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